Have we had a few days of really, really cold temperatures lately? Brrr and yes, but the sun is high and strong and the very near future promises much warmer weather. Yeeha! So, we’ll march on through the month readying ourselves for what’s to come…..sowing seeds, turning over soil, boiling sap into maple syrup goodness.I’m not going to squander a minute of March. Before long we’ll be doing that “sun up til sun down” thing we do every year. I’m using these last days of winter (yes, soon to be spring) to finish all the wool spinning and dyeing, all the knitting and felting, all the rummaging through boxes of family papers, all the reading (thank you Rick H. for the package of books you sent!!) I can muster before it’s too late. This past weekend both Liberty Tool Company and Liberty Graphics opened their doors for another season. This is great for all those who travel to Maine looking for something special to bring home…like a smoothing plane, or a mortising chisel, or a really nice locally printed tee-shirt. For us locals, we wait all winter for the village to show signs of life again. After a winter of staying close to home, gathering at Liberty Graphics for a cup of coffee and a good chat is a sure sign of revitalization.
Even our chickens seem to have a pep in their step, grooming the landscape for spring morsels. Deep snow and cold temperatures keep them close to the coop until the bare ground starts appearing. Then the door is flung open and out they come, busy the rest of the day rototilling through the gardens and the woods.
Enjoy your days, peek out into the gardens, tip your face to the sun….spring’s a comin!
Before the day gets too hot and just after the dew has dried, I harvest the calendula blossoms (Calendula officinalis) from the gardens. I’ll dry the flowers for making calendula oil and then add the oil to some of the salves and creams we make. Calendula is one of my favorite ingredients to use in ointments. It is antiseptic, has antimicrobial properties, and is an anti-inflammatory. As a topical ointment, it helps to heal wounds, soothes burns, rashes, and bug bites, and aids in collagen regeneration. It is also an antifungal. Some of the dried flowers will be stored in clean glass jars for making tea. We use the tea to promote digestions, as an immune booster, and in soothing abdominal cramps. The very last picking will be kept fresh and put into a pot of hot water, left overnight, strained, and then used for a dye bath. Along with a mordant of alum ( A mordant is a chemical binding agent that adheres well to both the fibres and to the dye. The word comes from the Latin mordere, which means to bite), it will produce a beautiful golden yellow dye to sink my wool into. Very nice indeed.
I love having these bright blooms among the veggies in the garden (that is where we grow them) and though we harvest most of their cheery orange and yellow blossoms, we do leave a portion of the flowers for reseeding.
The gardens here are glorious at the moment, despite the lack of rain. We spend much of our time watering, watering, and watering. The showy lady slippers, the corydalis, and bowman’s root are all in bloom…to name a few. Beautiful. We recently had a guest from South West Harbor visiting the nursery, a lovely lady who declared that pulling up a seat to enjoy Cypripedium kentuckiensis for an entire afternoon would suit her just fine. Can’t blame her…they are quite stunning. Happy gardening to all, and let’s hope we get some rain soon!
Our days now are spent tending to both the needs of winter and the needs of spring. We’re still hauling in firewood, and feeling the need to warm ourselves with hot tea and homemade broth. Somedays we are still putting a layer of long underwear on beneath our work clothes. The water buckets for the sheep and chickens are often still frozen in the morning. We are, however, for the most part without snow. Plants like winter aconite have pushed through the thawing ground and have blooms ready to open. Small, bright yellow flowers, just what we need to bring warmth to the landscape! Already the chickweed (Stellaria media) is starting to come up and spread along the ground in the greenhouse. This is great because I will pick it for salads, tea, and make a tincture with some – (More on this later).
I recently collected some lichen for wool dyeing. A jar of Xanthoria parietina sits soaking in a mixture of ammonia and water, fermenting nicely. In about three months or so, I will have the makings of a nice dye bath. I’ll keep you posted as the process moves along. Whether I am making tinctures, salves, or a concoction to be used for dyeing wool, I love this chance to be a ‘kitchen chemist’. A very basic ‘kitchen chemist’ that is, but with wonderful results that improve our health, nutrition, and can bring wonderful color to a skein of yarn. Speaking of yarn, the last package for our winter yarn CSA will go out this month. It’s been fun putting together the skeins of yarn, choosing patterns, and including a snapshot of one of our lovely sheep. We’ll surely be offering this again.
A warm weekend coming up, a few new lambing pens need to be built and another wall boarded in the studio. Maybe one of the giant brush piles can be burned. What sorts of things are people doing to ready themselves for spring? Any new gardening projects on the ‘to do’ list? We’d love to hear.
The sheep (and their shepherd) here at Fernwood would like folks to know that we have a winter yarn CSA available ( CSA- Community Supported Agriculture). Purchase a 3-month membership and we will send you a skein and a ‘one-skein’ knitting pattern each month. Beautiful, hand dyed, soft and lustrous skeins of yarn from our flock of Blue Face Leicester sheep. Though it hasn’t been one of our coldest winters on record, and perhaps there has been less need to bundle up in woolens, we do hope you’re still finding an opportunity( and reason!) to knit. If you are interested in Fernwood’s Yarn CSA and would like more information, email us please and I will promptly send along all the details. Thank you and stay warm!
Please don’t be upset with me. We are finally getting the long-awaited snowstorm, and it makes me so happy! A winter that doesn’t act like winter makes me uncomfortable. Winter should know its place and behave accordingly. Snow. Cold. Frozen ponds and lakes. Are you with me on this? I’m not sure the sheep are, but they’re designed for this kind of weather. Built-in winter coats? Sunny Florida is not the place for them, they belong right here where the cold will encourage them to grow long and heavy fleeces. And you know what that means, plenty of scrumptious Blue Face Leicester wool for me to spin and knit with. So……let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! I think I actually see a smile on the sheep’s faces, don’t you?
For years …as long as I have raised sheep, over twenty five years now, I have been searching for the perfect woolen mill to process some of our fleeces. We always keep a bundle of the newly shorn fleeces here to process ourselves, the rest will often get sent off to be cleaned and carded. This means bags of beautifully cleaned roving returns, ready to spin. The last two years I’ve even sent off several fleeces to have them cleaned, carded, and spun into yarn. So I have both available……skeins of our Blue Face Leicester spun right here with me at the wheel or yarn from our sheep that has been sent over to the Battenkill. Even with any mill spun yarn, I still do all the dyeing of each skein. With a flock of sheep’s fleeces piling up (I can only spin so fast and there is always so much else to do…surprise, surprise, huh?) I decided two years ago to send some of the fleeces off. This allowed me to have more inventory to sell to our yarn customers. Finding the right woolen mill has always been a challenge. For years we’ve had a local mill who did a great job, but they no longer clean fleeces, and because ‘cleaning’ the fleeces is the job that is most helpful, I began looking elsewhere. It’s not easy to find a mill you trust. Being a handspinner and working hard to maintain the quality of our sheep and their fleeces, I don’t want to risk sending them just anywhere. I had one mill years ago lose all of my 1st year lamb fleeces. Not happy, I can only say. Blue Face Leicester tends to have a fairly long staple length (length of the locks), it is quite crimpy, and often contains a fair bit of lanolin. This can gunk up a machine, so carefully washing is important. Some cottage mills are not able (or talented enough) to handle fleeces that are considered extra fine , like Merino or Rambouillet, or they are not able to slow the machines to handle a long stabled fleece…like Blue Face Leicester. Owning and operating a woolen mill is a craft. They need to understand the different wool breeds, they need to be able to assess the fleeces when they come in, and they need to be able to process each order to the customer’s request. There is a lot to pay attention to. So, this is why I am promoting the Battenkill Fiber Mill. They are, by far, the best mill I’ve come across. One of the great things about them is that they strive for accuracy. I get my own fleeces back and the weight of the finished product is always on the high end. They are great communicators, I often send my fleeces with a ( fairly) long list of instructions and thoughts…. the folks at the Battenkill know that they are working with producers that care about their sheep and the end quality of their fleeces, and so they listen. Quality is first and foremost at the Battenkill. I have been so happy to find a mill, one that is not across the country, that I can trust with my fleeces. They really are an excellent mill.
Recently, I received an email from Mary Jeanne who owns and operates the Battenkill Fiber Mill. She sends out a yearly update of things happening at the mill, along with this great video which explains how the mill operates. The best part of the video is learning a little bit about the happy folks who work there. If happy and contented people are doing the job of processing your fleeces, it makes sense that they come back to you reflecting the happy hands that handled them.
Check out the Battenkill’s website, the video is there to click onto……join in with supporting a great little business!
This weekend we put the metal roofing on the studio building. The studio has been one of the summer/fall projects we’ve been working on. Why do we need a studio here at Fernwood? Having a building to give more lectures and classes will be a great help. Rick will certainly offer up more horticultural classes, talks on specific plants or groupings of plants, and hands-on workshops. Over the last few years, people have requested more ‘talks’ and workshops that focus on the native and woodland plants we grow, shade gardening, and a multitude of other gardening/farming/ and craft related topics. Of course there will be lots of wool dyeing, felting, knitting, and art classes available, that’s just a given…..and completely indulgent on my part! Now that the roof is on, we’ll be focusing on the inside. This next weekend the woodstove will go in to allow us to work comfortably throughout the next month. A bit more wiring, insulating, and trimming out windows are next on the list. With hopes ( and well wishes!) the studio will be ready by January. We’re planning on a mid week yoga class taught by a friend of ours. A writing workshop has stirred some interest…..winter being a great time to indulge in the craft of writing. Rick has agreed to a winter walk and plant identification class. Part of the excitement has been in developing a line up of class possibilities……and suggestions are always welcome! We’ll certainly be listing class offerings as we get closer to finishing up the construction……stay tuned!
We have been blessed with an incredibly warm and beautiful Fall. A little rain here and there, just enough , I would say. A few cold and cloudy days, days we’re happy to come in to enjoy the warmth of a fire in the woodstove. What I like best about Fall is the pace. A big list still sits on the table, I’m afraid we’ll never be without a big list. But the way we go about tackling the tasks does seem less intense. Perhaps our bodies (and minds) are naturally winding down for the restorative season of winter. The days begin with a little less urgency……we wait for the sun to come up, we have a second cup of coffee, we look over the days work and make a plan. Right now, the very last of the firewood is being stacked ( some for next year, too!). More apples are being pressed for a winter’s supply of cider. Some of the gardens are being cut back and the soil amended. The animals are all being brought home to their winter lodging. The studio will have it’s roof on this weekend, the wiring done, and we’ll insulate the loft area. More yarn is being spun and dyed. Yes, there is a hefty list for sure, but I am enjoying the fact that we are not feeling so frenzied with having to cross off an entire list in one day. I want November to linger, I want to feel everyday as a gift of time. Perhaps the slower pace of these Autumnal days allows us to be a bit more present in our world, I like that. So off I go, list in hand and with no terrible urgency, to pay attention to my day! I hope you are all enjoying these beautiful days of Fall!
Out in the greenhouse this morning, sowing seeds and dyeing wool. It’s about 70 degrees in the greenhouse and many of the seeded flats are sprouting. Yeah! Outdoors it’s overcast and a bit raw, I think I saw a few snowflakes wafting down from the sky, but I’m ignoring that. Nursery customers are beginning to call to find out when the nursery will be opening ( May 9th!),inquiring about specific plant varieties, and other such matters. The gas stove I often use for dyeing wool is in one corner of the greenhouse, and this makes it very convenient to be simmering a dye pot while I also sow seeds. The last of the 2014 fleeces ( six left, I think) have been kept in the greenhouse over the winter. One by one I take them over to the washing station, give them several soaks, pick them over, and then start the dyeing process. Often I’ll wash the fleeces in thirds, it’s much easier to get a smaller batch of wool really clean this way. During the first week of April we’ll be shearing the entire flock. I’d like to think I can get those few fleeces from last year washed and dyed before the new ones start piling up. We’ll see! This lingering winter has allowed a little more time for finishing up with these kinds of projects. It’s chilly outdoors, the tea kettle is staying hot on the woodstove, it’s a good day for greenhouse warmth, sorting through seed packs, and dyeing wool!
Every year a pair of ravens (Corvus corax) who roost in the woods nearby start making daily visits to our farm. It is believed that ravens and crows mate for life, so we are assuming that it is the same pair returning. It makes sense, because every February we can expect the presence of these ravens, carefully watching us from their perch in one of the giant pine trees. Their daily visits have become one of the great and rewarding things we look forward to as winter nears it’s end. They have become part of our seasonal markings of time. Someone says “The ravens are back”, and then everyday we feel like the patterns of our lives are not just being observed by them, but some calculated interaction begins to happen as well. In February, ravens are building their nests. Every morning, starting mid winter, they begin cruising above watching to see if an egg, or some compost, or even straw bedding is being tossed out. Ordinarily we would not be tossing eggs out into the snow, but during the bitter cold if we find a frozen egg in the coop that has cracked, we may toss it into the snow. The ravens seem to know this. So, we’ve gotten into the habit of leaving them an egg, every morning and night ( they know exactly when we do chores). At first we leave an egg in the same place. On top of the snow and several yards away from the barn. Later we begin leaving them in different places, just to see how carefully they are watching us. Their keen eyes don’t miss a thing. On top of the trellis, the peak of the greenhouse, even on the ground between the two barns, the ravens pay attention to where the eggs are left. Then they wait. They wait until we go back into the house. They make a few passes from overhead, they caw to one another, and then one makes the descent and collects their egg. This goes on though the months of February and March. But the really amazing thing that we have been observing for years ( 6 or 7 years) is how they come back to gather nest building material. Every year these ravens come and gather fleece from our sheep. The fascinating thing is that they actually land on the sheep’s back, these giant ravens, without the sheep making any real attempt to move away. They grab a big hunk of fleece and yank and yank until a big tuft comes out. The sheep? They just stand there! They would never let me yank out a handful of wool like that! I have been trying to get a picture of this for years, but the ravens are too crafty for me to catch them. I swear they can even see me peering out the window. Yesterday I did finally catch them landing in the sheep pen and stealing wool ( although I’m not sure if it can be considered stealing if the sheep seem to be o.k. with this!). The pictures were taken through the window from inside the house, with me crouching and trying not to make sudden movement. Those keenly observant ravens really don’t miss a thing! One of the lambs, as you can see from the photo, seems quite perplexed as to who these birds are yanking wool from their mum’s back. Let’s face it, you can’t beat a fleece lined nest to welcome your new arrivals this spring. Pretty cushy! We truly love living amongst these great birds and observing their behavior. We wonder? Do the ravens and the sheep have some way of communicating this arrangement of fleece offering? Do the sheep think “well, we mama’s know what it’s like to have babes during a cold snap, you ravens take some insulation for your young ones”. I don’t know. We do feel privileged to bear witness of the ravens in winter, we enjoy knowing that sheep, ravens, chickens, dogs, and humans share common ground and can live fairly well together. There’s room for everyone here at Fernwood!