Susan’s Gardens at Olsen Farm

Our Mom, Susan, had a real gift for gardening. She loved birds, butterflies and beneficial insects and planted acres of beautiful gardens around the property at Olsen Farm.

We are very lucky to still have detailed plans and photos of her gardens through the years, so we can look back and see the incredible growth and spread her green thumb has had over the past three decades.

IMG_5443Dad, (Tommy) getting new beds dug and laid out in 1993. Those tiny spruce trees in the center are taller than the house now!

IMG_5445The first flowers were thoughtfully planted with stone paths between. We are still working to reclaim these stone paths from the hearty perennials that have happily spread over the years. 

IMG_5444Olsen Farm farmer, Chris, showing off Mom’s new garden bed layout (and his Little League pride!) in 1993

IMG_5441The farm house in the back was built in the 1790’s and is where our great grandparents lived back in the 1930’s when they immigrated from Norway and founded Olsen Farm

IMG_5440Stunning close-up of rudbeckia and cone flowers- some of Susan’s (and our) favorites! 

IMG_5448Full bloom, Summer at Olsen Farm 1996

Olsen Farm holds so much history for our family. Susan’s amazing gardens are a very important piece of what makes this land such a special place. We have been working to uncover some of the overgrown gardens and bring them back to their glory.

The impact of a well thought out pollinator garden is so much greater than can be expressed through words and photos. Susan really had a gift for color, planting bright flowers to bloom in each season. We know our honey bees (and native pollinators) are thoroughly enjoying all the delicious flowers Susan planted!

 

 

We recently registered Susan’s Gardens on the National Pollinator Garden Network, a part of the Million Pollinator Garden challenge. Please check out their project and register your gardens: http://millionpollinatorgardens.org

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Bee Keeping: Filling a New Hive

Bees are truly incredible creatures. They have complex communication and social systems. They are hardworking, intelligent and organized. They pollinate our flowers, fruits, trees and plants. Without their hard work our gardens would not grow. They make delicious honey- a natural antibiotic and delicious vaccine for pollen allergies. We literally could not live without them.

At Olsen Farm we started keeping bees last year because of the importance of supporting pollinators and our drive to practice natural farm and gardening techniques. We have a responsibility to protect native bees by planting healthy gardens- free of chemicals and pesticides, as well as a responsibility to care for our domestic bees like any other pet.

Our colony survived the winter last year but was not able to survive the unfortunate February early thaw and sudden temperature drop. Bees are powerful and delicate, with our quickly changing climate and growing use of toxic pesticides their world is in great danger- and in consequence so is ours.

This year we have added a second hive, and are continuing our hope for the bees and all they share with us.

Here are some photos of the hive-filling process:

 

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Prepping the smoker, dried grass makes great smoke!
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Chris puts on gear to protect his hands, face and arms while filling the hive
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Prying the lid off to remove the queen’s cage
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Removing lid to expose can of sugar water queen’s cage is attached to during travel
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The queen’s cage is attached by a strap that has to be pried off for removal
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Pulling out the can and queen cage
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This can is covered in bees! As soon everything else will be too…
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Detaching the queen’s cage from the can
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Chris gently brushes bees off the outside of the queen’s cage and into the hive box, setting queen’s cage aside for placement later
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Holding the bee package upside down over the brooding box, Chris gets ready to shake them out
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The most exciting step- shaking, or tapping, three pounds of live bees into their new home. No stings to date!
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Chris carefully places the queen’s cage between two frames so the colony can get used to her pheromones and she can be released in a day or so
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Giving the colony some smoke to calm them
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Chris carefully stacks the super on top of the brooder box
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Stacking on the inner narrow lid
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Placing on the hive lid, or outer cover
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Weighing down the lid cover with a cement flat
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We use a ratchet strap to secure our hive boxes together, making it more of a challenge for a bear to break them apart if ever one gets through our electric fence
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Hive one is live!
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Happy bees, already getting to work cleaning up a honey drip in their new home

For the birds: Attracting Orioles

Orioles are beautiful birds with an amazing song and bright, sunny plumage. These stunning birds LOVE sweet blossoms and fruit, particularly oranges.

 

To attract these beauties to your yard you could simply stick orange slices out on posts in the yard, or you can make a decorative treat with sliced oranges with these simple steps.

What you will need:

fresh oranges

sharp knife

2-3 inch twigs

string or twine, cut in 12-15 inch lengths

a skewer or knitting needle (I used a knitting needle)

 

1. Slice oranges in half

2. Cut a few 2-3 inch twig bits

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I used willow twigs because they are plentiful in our yard and are flexible

3. Use a sharp knife to cut a small nick in the center of each twig, as shown below

4. Wrap string or twine around nick in center of each twig and tie securely

5. Use skewer or knitting needle to poke a hole through the center of each orange slice

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6. Push twine or string through hole in orange from bottom to top, so that twig sits and base of orange

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This step is very juicy and sticky, don’t be afraid to get good and messy for the sake of the birds!

7. Hang your finished bird treats in a tree where you can watch the orioles enjoy them! 

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Orioles love the sweet blossoms of apple trees so I decided to hang some orange slices here for an added attraction.

Orioles build incredible hanging basket-like nests. You can cut some lengths of string or twine and lay them on garden fences or branches for these amazing builders to collect for their nests. Enjoy your bird watching!

Olsen Farm: In the News

photo credit: Andy McKeever iBerkshires staff

Olsen Farm, and our story were recently featured in an amazing article on iBerkshires.com. The parallels between our struggle to save the farm now and our great grandparent’s struggles over 80 years ago are striking. Olsen Farm has been here before,  and because of our blood ties to this land we will persevere- like our great grandparents did facing the same odds so many years ago.

The community support and outreach generated by this publicity has been incredible. So many people have contacted us with suggestions, resources, offers to help fix up the farm- people have been recognizing us from the article and coming to talk with us about Olsen Farm’s story. This kindness and generosity, from friends and strangers alike, has helped us feel like the overwhelming tasks we are wrapped up in are not so unreachable.

Being part of an incredible community is what us makes small, local farms a success. Thank you, thank you!! to everyone who has reached out with resources and donations. Each small piece goes toward preserving our family farm, and through your donations and support you all have become part of Olsen Farm’s legacy as well.

 

Please check out the article if you have not already had a chance:

http://www.iberkshires.com/story/54452/Lanesborough-Couple-Fighting-to-Save-Historic-Family-Farm.html

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We were so excited to find this old sign with great grandpa’s name while cleaning out the basement and are planning to re-create a new ‘Olsen Farm’ sign in the same style

photo credit: Rachel Payne 

Beneficial Insects: Praying Mantids for Tick Control

Ticks are a serious problem in Berkshire County. Not a day goes by when we don’t find them on ourselves and our pets and we are always searching for ways to manage these horrible pests without the use of toxic chemicals. Our chickens and guinea fowl offer great tick control but can always use some help in their daunting task- we discovered these little helpers in praying mantids, a beneficial insect and natural predator to ticks and other small insects.

Mantids are native to our area so there is not risk of introducing one invasive species to manage another. Be sure to check your area before purchasing and releasing beneficial insects to be sure there is not risk of introducing invasive species. 

Two years ago we bought a few egg sacks and hatched them in a clear cup. There are about 300 tiny mantids in each egg sack- we bought the egg sacks in late April and they hatched in early June. Hatching times may differ for different geographic areas. These tiny critters sounded like popcorn popping when they hatched and bounced off their container!

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Be sure to release the tiny mantids soon after hatching to avoid cannibalism. Praying mantids are carnivorous and do not discriminate from their own species. When releasing mantids you can sprinkle them in the garden, on plants and trees and off ground level. Ants are predators to tiny mantid hatchlings and will take advantage of any babies they find on the ground. 

Mantis babies are itty bitty and a light brown color. They turn the bright green as they mature in order to blend in with the vegetation they hide in.

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You can keep a mantis or two as pets but they must be separated or they will eat one another. It can be a challenge to catch insects small enough for them to eat, ants will eat baby mantids and should not be offered as a food source. Fruit flies and gnats make a great mantis meal!

A few weeks ago while walking the orchards we found this mantid egg sack wrapped up in some dried tall grass. It was an exciting discovery and proud mantis-parent moment to see that our beneficials were breeding on the property. IMG_9802

You can order praying mantid egg sacks from Arbico Organics, they are a wonderful resource for organic and natural pest control options. Egg sacks can be place directly in the yard to hatch or hatched inside for your viewing pleasure. Make sure your insect nursery container has only tiny air holes- baby mantids are tiny and will escape all over your house if they can! 

 

 

DIY Chicken Saddles, protect your hens from over mating

Chicken trouble: bare backs

Spring is for the birds and the bees- and this means our rooster is working overtime. Sometimes he can get a little carried away with his ‘rooster duties’ and end up pulling feathers from the girl’s backs. Once the other hens see bare skin on their sister’s back they can’t resist pecking and pulling out more feathers.

When a rooster mates a hen he climbs on her back, standing on her wings and holding her neck and back feathers in his beak to get in position for transfer of sperm. Sometimes he pulls out a few feathers during the process. Over mating, or aggressive mating, can lead to hens with bare backs and at risk of further wounds and infection if not cared for. 

We tried using Blu-Kote Antiseptic spray, which we have had success with in the past when chickens had skin exposed,  on our girl’s backs but it did not seem work. What else could we do to protect our chicken’s backs?

The answer- chicken saddles! I searched around and found this article: here  from Mother Earth News including a sewing pattern and instructions and decided to try it out.

What you will need:

A basic understanding of sewing is necessary for this project, I used my sewing machine but saddles could easily be hand sewn as well.

  • machine washable, breathable fabric
  • 1/2 inch elastic
  • sew-on velcro
  • scissors
  • straight pins
  • needle and thread or sewing machine
  • saddle pattern (can be printed from Mother Earth article)

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I chose fabrics that would match the feather patterns of my flock in order to maintain their camouflage while out foraging the yard. While it is cute to have brightly colored and patterned vests for your chickens their feathers are their first line of protection from predators and their safety is a greater priority than their cuteness (although they do look pretty adorable in their feather-tone vests as well!)

Step by step

  1. Print out your saddle pattern from the Mother Earth articleIMG_3069

2. Cut out the paper pattern and pin it to your fabric, fabric should be folded double so you end up with two saddle shapes after cutting.

3. After cutting, unpin the paper pattern and re pin fabric layers with patterned side facing inIMG_2981

4. Cut two strips of 1/2 inch elastic at 7 inches IMG_2979

5. Pin elastic strips to neckline, so that long end of elastic is hidden between pinned layers of the saddle, as shown in photos belowIMG_3001IMG_3011IMG_3023

6. Stitch 1/4 inch seam around the edge of your saddle, leaving a hole (seen on right hand side) unstitched on one sideIMG_3024

7. Using hole left unstitched, turn saddle right side out, like a pillowIMG_3025

8. Sew 1/4 inch seam around outer edge, closing up hole used to turn right side outIMG_3026

9. Cut two pieces of both male and female velcro at 1.5 inches and pin female side to body of saddle and male side to the ends of elasticIMG_3028

10. Stitch elastic in place, fasten velcro and be proud of your beautiful and functional new chicken saddle!IMG_3029

Now it is time to try your saddles on the chickens! Saddles sit with the squared edge against the neck and elastic straps go under each wing to secure at the hen’s armpit.

Here is our Jelly Doughnut modeling her off-white saddle on the grass runway:IMG_3049IMG_3050IMG_3051

Chicken saddles are easy to make and can truly make a difference in the health of your flock. We have had our girls wearing saddles for almost a week now and are already seeing new feather growth returning on their backs.

Starting Seeds, Saving Money

We are always looking for ways to save money, and to live more sustainably. One small step we took this year is to start our seeds using homemade paper pots, rather than buying plastic or peat pots. We purchased a wooden PotMaker from Lehman’s- and used the tag paper our Lehman’s order was shipped in for our first pots! Take a look at our first DIY seed starting experiment:

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The PotMaker is a clever two piece wooden mold that allows you to repurpose newspaper or newsprint and turn it into biodegradable starting pots that can be popped right in the ground. 

Here is how it works:

1. Cut your paper into strips 3.5 inches wide by about 16 inches long. Line one edge of the long side your strip up with the lip of the cylindrical part of your PotMaker, as shown below. FullSizeRender

2. Gently wrap your paper strip around the cylindrical part of the PotMaker until your strip is completely wrapped. Overlapping layers will make your paper pot stronger. At first I wrapped my paper too tightly and the finished pot would not slide off the PotMaker- luckily, you can learn from my mistake! FullSizeRender_1

3. The bottom of your pot should have about an inch of paper overlapping- and should look like this:FullSizeRender

4. Start folding in the bottom paper overlap. I found my pots stayed together best when I made the first fold-in to the left of the seam where the paper roll finishes wrapping around the cylinder, so that the second fold-in would hold in the seam itself. FullSizeRender_1

5. Continue folding in the overlapping paper all the way around the base of your PotMaker.FullSizeRender_2

6. Now comes the fun part! Take your paper wrapped and folded cylindrical handle and press, twist and turn it into the fitted wooden base. Use your muscles! I found pots hold a better and stronger shape when you place the base on a hard surface and press the paper-wrapped top down into it. Unlike what I have shown in the photos below…FullSizeRender_5FullSizeRender_3

7. Gently slide your newly formed paper pot off the cylinder and repeat as many times as pots you desire! FullSizeRenderFullSizeRender_1

 

Congratulations! Your new, biodegradable, FREE paper pots are done- now it is time to plant!

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1. Take your favorite potting soil and fill each paper pot. Gently press soil down to about 1/4 inch from the top of your pot. With the money we saved from not buying plastic or peat pots we were able to invest in better soil for our starters. Today we used 100% Organic VermiSoil and it smelled delightful!IMG_2971

2. Generously pop in you choice of seeds (I always plant 3-5 seeds per starting pot, it is easy to separate later on when they sprout)- today we started sweet and hot peppers, two types of onions and an array of herbs. IMG_2972

4. Cover seeds with 1/4 of soil and gently press down. Add some labels, so you can remember what you have planted! IMG_2835

Don’t forget to water in your freshly planted seeds and set them in a sunny spot to sprout.

The PotMaker has proven to be a great investment so far this year. They are available at Lehman’s if you are feeling inspired to try one out yourself. We will check back in with seed starting updates as our PotMaker paper pots start to sprout!

 

Spring Means Chicks: Remembering our First Hatch

 

Our obsession with poultry started last April when we incubated our first five eggs in my classroom, and amazingly all five hatched! Three turned out to be roosters, they all turned out to be exactly what we were missing in our lives. Chickens are truly incredible animals with such unique personalities and an ability to both create and be food. They help control pests and enrich the soil simply by going about their daily business. Chickens are the perfect bird, and the perfect friend.

Chicken eggs need to incubate for 21 days, being turned at least twice a day to allow chicks to evenly develop and prevent them from getting stuck to the inside of their shells. During incubation eggs need to stay at about 100 degrees and have 60% humidity. We have incubated using electronic incubators, seen above, so we can watch the eggs crack and hatch, this year we plan to have some of our hens incubate eggs as well. 

We have learned a lot about hatching and raising birds this year, including how to reverse birth defects and treat chicken injuries naturally. How to prevent frostbitten combs and keep chickens from pulling out each others feathers. We have already seen a decrease in ticks and other insect pests in the year we have had our flock. We also discovered that chickens will hunt and eat live mice- a gruesome surprise that has helped manage another pest problem on the farm!

It has been especially interesting to see how chicken feathers change as they mature. A fluffy little yellow chick can transform into a smooth and silky white hen with black speckles, a brown and tan striped chick can turn into an iridescent red and brown rooster. Here is a look at three of our first chicks and their adult selves. (My students are responsible for the awesome names of the first five chickens.)

Jelly Doughnut was the first to hatch, and our first hen to start laying her beautiful blue/ green eggs. 

Our flock narrowly escaped a dog attack because of the instincts and feistiness of our main rooster, Alexander Hamilton, who sustained major injuries protecting his girls. 

Oozie was named such because the children got to watch her hatch and she ‘oozed’ out of her shell. 

Now it is Spring again, and time to start the next generation of our flock. Throughout this year we have incubated dozens more chicken eggs as well as turkey and guinea fowl eggs. We currently have 29 chickens, including 5 roosters, as well as 4 guinea hens (we used to have 4 turkeys and 2 more roosters but we ate them).

Our chickens are both beloved pets and a crucial part of our survival. While we name our birds, give them treats like cabbage and meal worms, we also believed that eating what we raise is a critical part of being a responsible and sustainable farmer. It may not be easy to butcher a rooster or hen we have raised from an egg, but we know our birds live free, happy and healthy lives ranging the yard.

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I don’t think watching chicks hatch is something that will ever get old. Plus, there is nothing quite so wonderful as a handful of freshly hatched chicks. It truly is amazing to realize that a laying hen has potential to create a new chicken each day. A new life, each and every day.

 

Stay tuned for more on this year’s hatchlings coming soon!