New Fence, New Rooster

As we have slowly fixed up the barn, our goals have been for it to be a useful storage place and a shelter for livestock.
Since Hill Creek Farm is primarily a produce farm, the livestock needs to be fenced so that they don’t eat the produce (and plants!) we’re growing to sell.
Over the fall, Chris of Sandy Hill Construction, LLC, who has done most of our outbuilding work had some time, so we had him finish the third bay for goats.
Readers of this blog will remember that we have 8 chickens — which can be destructive enough to produce if they free-range, but nothing is as hungry of fresh, green growth as a few goats (never have just one goat — they are herd animals that need at least one buddy).  So, if we are going to get goats and have them share the barnyard with poultry, we needed a good fence.
Chris did some research and came up with a fence that should keep in chickens, turkeys and goats (the livestock we’d like to house in the barn).  There’s no point in doing a fence multiple times, so in November, Chris and his father, Tom, came out and put together this fence:


Note that there is no latch on the gate.  It’s held together by chains that wrap around the gate so that escape artist goats (and all goats are escape artists!) can’t undo the latch and help themselves to the herb garden beside the house!
Here’s how the fence looks from the front:


Experienced goat keepers will note that we’re not completely ready for goats yet.  The oak posts have to dry and get cut even, then a single wire electric fence line will be strung along the top of the fence and stone wall to keep the goats from climbing out and heading for the herb garden, front field, neighbor’s bushes, etc.  Chris will come back and do all that in the Spring, plus we’ll be taking out the random stones in the barnyard and grading it so that heavy rains don’t turn the area into a mud pit.

If you’d like Sandy Hill Construction to fix up your farm outbuildings or build a multi-purpose fence for livestock, you can contact them at  sandyhill_llc AT​

However, the fence is sufficient to take down the green fencing outside the second bay where we keep the chickens.  Since we have more space, we could get a rooster so that the most productive of our 8 hens can experience motherhood.

After Pilgrim, our lead chicken, put up a personal ad on various Facebook groups, we found another small farmer here in East Coventry Township ​who had 5 roosters to choose from.  My cousin Ed and I decided we wanted one of the white-spattered ​Ameraucana roosters, so all four of us ran after those two roosters until we caught one.  This is what he looks like:


Continuing the tradition of naming livestock after characters from the Babylon-5 TV series​, I named him Londo, since the Centauri have multiple wives.

Londo was purchased in August as a chick from the Pughtown Agway​, so at only 4 months, technically, he’s a cockerel, rather than a rooster.  He’s thinking about crowing, but hasn’t done it yet.  He and Original Leghorn​ are becoming friends, but, Pilgrim, a Barred Rock, after a week and a half, is still suspicious of him.​  This is Pilgrim:


Hopefully, these crazy kids will one day (soon!) fall in love, or at least lust and we’ll have some cute little baby chicks in the Spring.
Meanwhile, Londo has decided to spend his nights on the tallest roost in the coop.  Here he is, keeping an eye on the flock in the morning:


Chicken politics keeps us all amused, but hopefully, we’ll have our own chicks in 2016 that will lay a variety of colored eggs.  Stay tuned for more chicken photos!




Limited Edition Antique Black Walnut Cracker Works!

On Tuesday night, we tried out the “W. O. Weber Black Walnut Cracker.”  It looks like this:


A senior citizen at our church heard that we were having difficulty cracking the black walnuts on the farm, so he offered to lend us this cracker.   His father, who worked on the railroad, bought it from the Webers who made them specifically for black walnuts.
These crackers were a popular item among the railroad workers, but a Google search didn’t find much about the Webers or the cracker.  I looked up the information on the cracker which you can see here:


Zillow says the address pictured still exists.  A “W. O. Weber & Sons” company in Pennsylvania, which used to be a machine shop, is still a registered business name here in PA.  But even though this is Serial No. 401, I didn’t find any other images of this cracker on Google.
Our biggest concern, however, was if it would crack black walnuts better than Frank’s vise, which is bolted to his workbench in the basement.  Tina bravely put a nut in the holder and cranked away, as Vir cheered her on from his chair:


It works!  You need to pull the handle with some arm strength, but it crushes the shell around the nutmeat nicely and doesn’t take nearly the strength that the vise requires.  The cracker is also more portable than a vise.  You want a sturdy base under it (which is why we used the kitchen island instead of the kitchen table), but it produces cracked black walnuts with only moderate effort.  Every once in awhile, a nut explodes, so you want to put the cracker somewhere where the fragments can be easily found.
Tina managed to crack a container full of walnuts relatively quickly so that my cousin Ed, pick at the ready, had a pile of jumbled shell fragments and nutmeats to sort through.


With this device, we’ve got the cracking part of black walnut processing down.  Now, we need to develop a technique that separates the “break a tooth” hard shells from the “lots of great recipes for edible” nutmeats.  If you’ve got suggestions, put them in the comments.

We’ll be taking good care of the W.O. Weber Limited Edition Antique Black Walnut Cracker this November until the black walnuts are processed, then it will go back to its owner.  But we’ll definately be bribing him to borrow it for next year’s black walnut processing because it makes the cracking step that much easier.  If you’ve come here through Google Images because you found one of the other 400 of these devices,  hang on to it because it works and makes your black walnut life easier.

To finish, here’s another picture of Tina (with Vir still on his chair) strong-arming an especially tough nut (which she was able to crack without having to run downstairs to the vise!)


Bring on the black walnut recipes!  We’ve got the trees and now we’ve got a working cracker!







Seventeen Garlic Varieties Planted for 2016

We spent the last half of October getting the garlic in the ground.  Usually, the weather cools off, which encourages the garlic to grow its root system (which can extend up to 8 feet under the ground!), rather then sent shoots above.  So, there is time to make shredded leaf mulch (the best mulch for garlic) as the leaves fall.
This year has been unusually warm.  Saturday morning, I took Luke for his early morning relief walk in the back field and saw that much of the garlic had sprouted in neat rows down the two beds we had created for them.
Panic!  Frost was coming yet again, so we spent the weekend gathering and shredding leaves, then putting the mulch over the tender garlic shoots.


We finished covering the beds before the frost came on Sunday night.  As you can see from the photo, we had been covering the beds with odd bits of straw and the cowpea residue we had cut into the cover crop to make the garlic beds.
Each variety is marked with two wooden stakes (in case one stake gets lost over the winter).  We put trenches down each outer side of the beds so that water drains off the beds.  This is critical because in winter, the ground will be too frozen to absorb any moisture.   If we have wood chips, we put them in the trenches to prevent erosion.
This year’s 17 varieties are a mix of 1) varieties we want to continue to grow, 2) varieties we are still trialing to see if they will grow well in Southeastern Pennsylvania and 3) new varieties from The Experimental Farm Network​, via USDA, which are beginning their 3 year trial to see if they should be grown in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  They are:
German Extra Hardy
German Red
Georgia Fire
Kettle River​
Italian Arctic
Montana Zemo
Chef Chet’s Italian Red
and numbered varieties from USDA from the following countries:
Even with stakes, we can’t remember where all the varieties are planted, so each year, I make up a map that lists all the varieties and where they are planted.  In the past, I’ve made several copies of the map and put them in various locations around the house so I have at least one map that didn’t get lost over the holidays when I’m ready to harvest in late June/early July.  This year, I also scanned the map and put a copy in the Farm folder on the computer, which is backed up to the cloud.  Losing the map is not an option!
If you’d like to talk garlic, drop us a line!  There’s time now that the garlic is planted and mulch!



Seed Production 2015

There’s several gaps in the blog posts this year, mostly because we were so busy cleaning and processing seed that I didn’t have time to actually write the blog posts!
I did take photos, so since it’s raining today, I thought I’d put them all together in one post and show you what we’ve been doing.
The Workshop has turned into a premium seed production facility.   Here, we have 3 types of tomato seeds fermenting and drying, plus leek seed (in the bags) and radish seed (in the pods on the pallet) drying.


In this photo, Shanlee spreads out fermented tomato seeds to dry on ceramic or glass places (so they don’t stick and can be gathered easily when dry) with a canape knife.  Most seed processing equipment is made for laboratories (for testing) or for farms that grow acres of one type of seed.  Most small-scale heirloom seed processors have assorted “make do” repurposed items to help them clean and process the seed they grow.


Here are Tina, Libby and Shanlee processing radish seed in the evening in the doorway of the Workshop. It’s a very pleasant place to be on summer/early fall evenings, but radish seed, it turns out, is one of the most difficult seeds to process.


Next year, we are hoping to have less hand-work and better equipment to help us clean seed in a more timely manner.  One of my winter reading projects is to learn more about how to efficiently clean and process the different types of seed we want to grow.  If you have any tips, leave them in the comments!






Planting a Pawpaw Patch

It’s been a busy month with adding 33 rhubarb transplants, planting 17 varieties of garlic (about 3,000 cloves) and cleaning up the annual gardens for winter.

However, the most exciting development at the farm this fall has been putting together a pawpaw patch.  A friend discovered a neglected pawpaw patch near Barto and received permission to take fruit.  We tasted a few and the flavor was outstanding.

October is the tail end of pawpaw season, so many of the fruits were beyond their prime.  However, Purdue University Extensionsuggests that one plant the entire fruits, so we took 15 fruits and the seeds left over from the pawpaws we ate and planted 18 holes worth of pawpaw patch.

Right now, the pawpaw patch looks like this:


As the pawpaws won’t send up shoots until mid July to late August, each fruit has to be marked with a stake so we don’t mow anything down in the Spring.  We’ll weed the areas around the stakes by hand until the trees are large enough to be easily seen.  Pawpaws are an understory tree, but once mature, they bear more fruit in full sun.  We’ll put shade cloth over the shoots for their first two years above the ground.​​

If you’ve never heard of pawpaws, the Wikipedia entry is here​.  The ones we planted had yellow flesh and tasted like a banana with mango and apple overtones.
Kentucky State University has studied pawpaws more than anyone else; their information is here.
It will probably be about 5 years before our pawpaw patch produces saleable fruit, but we’re excited to add this native fruit to the farm.  ​​


Summer Flowers

As a seed grower, I mostly grew flowers to attract pollinators (good pollination means more viable seeds) and then, because plants grown for flowers tend to be more attractive to pollinators than vegetable flowers, plant plenty of those flower plants around the  vegetables grown for seeds so that the pollinators “dust off” their vegetable pollen and take up flower pollen instead, thus preventing crosses between the same type of vegetable.
But once we put up the farm stand, people noticed the flowers in our vegetable fields and asked if they could purchase them, too.  So, I gather the best of the day’s flowers and put them in the farm stand, like this.


I’ve been buying zinnia seed that are appropiate for cut flowers, but it’s good to see that the pollinators still enjoy the flowers we set out for them.


The farm stand is a bit zinnia-heavy as they seem to hold up best as a cut flower.  I’ve used Cosmos ‘Sensation Mix’ for years for the pollinators, but haven’t found that the stems are long enough to put in the farm stand.  (It probably doesn’t help that I’ve bought Cosmos twice in my life — once when we started the community garden [1990] and the second time when we started a full planting season here at the farm [2013].  Cosmos re-seeds prolifically and beautifully, but the variations on petal shape & color, plant height and stem length doesn’t lend itself well to putting the flowers  in a bucket at the farm stand.  The pollinators, however, love Cosmos, no matter what the year’s re-seeded variations produce, so there is always plenty of Cosmos in the field, especially around the tomatoes. )

I needed to get out of a zinnia rut and add another flower to the farm stand.  Frank loves sunflowers and a friend had tried out some of the new “cutting” sunflowers that have lovely flowers only a few feet off the ground so that one can easily harvest them as a cut flower.  My friend’s seeds grew into this scene by the Workshop:


Don’t they look nice?    I decided I liked them so much that I would let this year’s trial go to seed so that next year, we can plant “cutting” sunflowers along the smokehouse (which has zinnias this year) and the barnyard wall where everyone can enjoy them as they pass by the farm and, hopefully, will produce enough to add to next year’s farm stand.
In the meantime, enjoy the photos and if you know what type of butterfly is in the middle zinnia photo, let me know and I’ll edit this post!









Ei von Phuket: A Top-Notch Cooking Tomato

When last we were talking about the Thai tomato, Ei von Phuket, it was Frank’s birthday and I was waiting for him to come home so he could taste this tomato we’re growing out for the Roughwood Seed Collection.

The verdict?  If you’re cooking with tomatoes, especially if you’re using the broiler, you want to use this tomato.

Who thought that a Thai tomato would be so amazing in bruschetta? Or that it transforms our weekday standby, frittata, into a dish we’re now serving to company?

(I’m sure this tomato is amazing in Thai food, but Frank is allergic to rice, so I don’t cook Thai at home.  [Have to make things that everyone can eat!]  If you do cook Thai cuisine at home and are growing this tomato, do try it out at the pale greenish-white unripe stage for curries as is done in Thailand — unlike Italian tomatoes, this tomato lingers in the “just before ripe” unripe stage so that you can easily harvest enough for curries and have ripe tomatoes to broil.)

Fresh, this tomato is okay, but nothing to write a blog post about.   Add heat and you’ll see why we’re so excited about this tomato.  Here’s how we’re eating/cooking with Ei von Phukets right now:

Saute:  It’s August and we have veggies, veggies, veggies.  I usually chop up what isn’t suitable for the farm stand and toss it in to the frying pan with some diced tomatoes so that I don’t need to use as much olive oil to keep the veggies from sticking to the pan.  In the past, I just used whatever tomatoes weren’t right for the farm stand either, but now, the flavor is definately enhanced when I use the Ei von Phukets.

Frittata:  With laying hens and lots of veggies, frittata is our go-to meal when things get busy.  Coat the frying pan with a good layer of spray oil. plop in whatever veggie mix is in the frig, stir in the eggs, turn on the heat to let it set and I was ready to go.  Then, since the Ei von Phukets were so good under the broiler for bruschetta, I thought, “Why not lay them on top of the frittata before it goes into the broiler?”  So, I halfed the Ei von Phukets, took out the seeds, then halfed the halfs and dropped them in a nice pattern in the top of the frittata while it was cooking on the stovetop.  I then grated some cheese (I like Pecorino Romano) over the tomatoes and put the whole thing under the broiler.

When it comes out, it looks like this:


It looks nice (which is always a struggle for me) and it tastes fabulous!
So for 2015, it’s Zhong Shu #6 for fresh eating, Rei Umberto for sauce and Ei von Phuket for cooking (especially broiling).
Happy Tomato Season and if you’d like to try any of these tomatoes, drop me a line!