5/19/2006

Midnight Mothers & Minding The Moonsigns:
A Busy Spring At Windridge

Written in March, 1997 at Windridge Farm

I came across an article the other day that discussed the history of linen. While most of us no longer sleep between sheets of this soft, lightweight material, for centuries it was used by everyone from royalty to peasants. Bedding, clothing, curtains, and even feed sacks were all made of linen. Although the task of turning a field of flax into finely woven cloth was an arduous one, requiring countless hours of labor, linen was for centuries the most readily available fabric.

There were, according to the article, two basic reasons for this. One was that flax thrived in the temperate European climate, while cotton only grew in hotter places like India. The other reason was that "a field of flax was also cheaper to look after than a herd of hungry sheep, and a pocketful of seeds was more portable."

Now wait just a minute. In that one sentence, the author (who obviously knows nothing about sheep, as it's a flock, not a "herd") has completely dismissed the entire wool industry. I can understand the rationale behind her statements, but I don't think it's fair to compare an adorable flock of sheep to a field of spindly little plants.

I know from firsthand experience that some fo those flax farmers were sorely missing out. So the sheep farmers had to pay for veterinary services once in a while. So they couldn't pick up and run off to Paris every other weekend--as I'm sure all the flax farmers did. Raising sheep is full of rewarding moments that you just can't get from a pocketful of seeds. Take lambing season for example.

If you raise flax, you take one last look at your fields before nightfall, and then you go to bed. Perhaps you try to decide which field you will harvest the next day as you are drifting off to sleep. You may even have a dream in which your flax makes an appearance. But you definitely do not get up in the middle of the night to make sure that your fields are still out there, and that they are not having any problems. No, a flax farmer will never know the joys of waking up at two in the morning from a deep sleep, bundling into five layers of clothing, and stumbling out to the barn in seven degree weather to check if anyone is having a baby.

A sheep farmer on the other hand (or at least this one), is exceedingly familiar with such nighttime pleasures. For some reason, all of our older ewes prefer to have their lambs in the middle of the night. This, I have decided, is because they do not want to take time out from the extremely important daytime task of eating to do something as mundane as giving birth.

I will admit, though, that this year I did not make nearly as many midnight trips out to the barn as last year. In fact, everything about lambing season was more relaxed this year--probably because I was still recovering from last year.

Last year we did everything by the book. We gasped in horror at the stories a longtime sheep farmer told us of newborn lambs that had frozen to death out in the field during the night. We were astounded that anyone would not know the exact date when their first lambs were due because they had allowed their ram to run with the flock all year long.

We, in comparison, kept meticulous records of everything and remained in complete control of the breeding situation--and our more laid-back sheep farming friends were kind enough to refrain from saying anything to us about our obsessiveness.

On the appropriate fall day of our first breeding season, we lashed our special mail-order marking harness to The Count, our short but strapping brown Border Leicester ram who was more than ready to get down to the business at hand, and let him in with the girls. The bright red crayon attached to the front of the harness allowed The Count to "mark" the backs of the conquered ewes, which in turn allowed us to keep track of just who had been bred when. Eight weeks later, we returned The Count to solitary confinement (much to his dismay), and exactly five months after breeding season opened the first lambs were born.

Lambwise, things started out with a bang that first year and just kept banging. It was an educational experience, to say the least, as I went from never having seen anything being born to having 24 lambs in 50 days arrive on the farm. As we had purposely purchased mostly older ewes who were veteran mothers (because even if we had no idea what was going on, at least they did), there werent't any major problems, though we did have a few surprises.

The first ewe to give birth, a black-faced Suffolk we'd named Sophie, had quadruplets--an extremely rare occurrence with Suffolk sheep. One was stillborn and another died in my arms moments after being born, but the two that survived are now the biggest lambs we have. They had tiny black faces and legs, and their white woolly bodies were speckled with black spots.

We immediately began calling them The Chippers because curled up together they looked like two scoops of chocolate chip ice cream. Chip and Chip, who have since lost their spots, are extremely sweet and always trot over to me for pets and hugs. Although they are both boys and should be headed for a freezer (my husband wanted to start calling them Chop and Chop), I am keeping them. *

The next lambs were born only hours after The Chippers, and more continued to arrive every day or two--most of them in the middle of the night. It was not uncommon for me to head out to the barn at 2 a.m. and find a ewe happily munching on grass in the barnyard with a brand new set of twins at her side. (One naturally works up an enormous appetite giving birth to twins).

Even when I missed out on the action, there were still several post-birthing tasks that needed to be done. First of all, the mother and her lamb(s) must be moved into a barn stall where they can bond for a few days. This step alone can take what seems like an awfully long time at two in the morning, as you cannot simply call a sheep over like you can a puppy.

Usually I end up taking the newborn lamb in my arms and slowly backing toward the barn while the mother sniffs and bleats and (hopefully) follows after her baby. The catch is that the backing up must be done entirely from a crouching position so the baby is kept close to the ground; all moms know that lambs can't fly, and a ewe would never think to look for her little darling up in the air.

Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't. The skittish mothers who never willingly come near me do not generally catch on to the fact that I am holding their baby. They circle frantically around the barnyard calling for it, and every few steps the lamb must be set down so the mother can find it, sniff it, and assure herself that it is indeed hers. Thus assured, she usually starts looking around for something to eat. You can imagine how interesting this scenario becomes when one of the sheep gives birth way out in a field.

Once safely in a bonding pen together, the mother will finish cleaning off her lamb and murmur sweet nothings in its ears, while I snip the umbilical cord and douse it with iodine to prevent infection. Within minutes the tiny newborn is up on its wobbly legs looking for a drink. A struggle of sorts then generally begins, as mother is determined to keep baby near her face, while baby wants to head to the other end of mother and sidle up to the milk bar. At this point I simply step back and look on, captivated by the tender scene before me.

Reproduction is a simple, ingeneous process which gets very complicated when you are armed with charts and notes and breeding schedules. Sometimes it is better to just let nature lead the way, as we realized when our model sheep breeding operation lapsed a few months later. When The Count's passive affections toward us turned to angry butts and incessant moans long before fall, we gladly returned him to his girls, sans marking harness. And although his early relocation ensured that the arrival date of this year's first lambs would be a complete surprise, we were all a whole lot happier.

We ended up breeding fewer ewes this year, too, and since some of them were lambing for the first time, they were not adverse to daylight births--which means I got a lot more sleep. There were a few late nights, though, when Ollie Cat, Garden Kitty, and I sat patiently in the hay keeping a straining mother-to-be company, while moonlight streamed through cracks in the walls of the old oak barn and a million stars twinkled overhead. On our farm in the middle of nowhere we would quietly await another miracle--a miracle that no flax farmer will ever have the chance to experience.

Sheep aren't the only thing we produce around here, though, and in between the arriving lambs I try to start my seeds for the garden. Because our weather is so unpredictable, and because I like to have complete control over my several thousand tiny seedlings, I start nearly all of my seeds indoors in plastic trays.

This is a rather complex process. First of all, I never get around to starting any seeds until the middle of March because I'm too busy with lambing, so long before our last frost date I feel as if I'm already behind. Secondly, we heat our house with wood. Why does this matter? Because the week I choose to start my first seeds is inevitably the week that we have a spell of sunny and warm weather, which means that if we do not let the fire in the woodstove go out, the house will be stifling hot during the day. And unless we relight the woodstove each night (which we inevitably do not), the temperature in the house hovers at only around 60 degrees--bearable for us but too cold to get most seeds to sprout.

So why don't I simply place all of my flats of newly sown seeds on a sunny windowsill as gardening books often recommend? Because we really only have two windowsills, and those are permanently claimed by the four indoor cats who, in their urgent and constant quest for heat, have an utter disregard for delicate containers of seeds. They will, without the slightest hesitation, send what could potentially bea few hundred pounds of lip-smacking, vine-ripened tomatoes crashing to the floor with one swish! of a space-making tail. Mentioning my unhappiness with this distressing practice to the cats is absolutely pointless, as they simply stare straight through me with a patented feline look that plainly says they could really care less because--as I have obviously forgotten--one, they do not eat tomatoes, and two, they do not have any lips.

I know, I know, it all gets very confusing. And I haven't even mentioned the three-tier, flourscent-lighted, seedling-holding, A-frame-type contraption my husband built for me that is the size of half a room. Or the fact that each year I completely take over our tiny dining room with all of my seed starting paraphernalia.

This year I have managed to simplify things a bit. I've still taken over the dining room, but as soon as the containers of seeds are sown they go directly out to the greenhouse. During the day it is quite warm in there, but the temperature does drop down at night. So far, though, it seems to be working out alright.

Unfortunately my other garden plans are anything but simplifying. In a fit of snowstorm-and seed catalog-induced madness, I decided to greatly expand the herb and flower gardens this year and ordered over a hundred packets of perennial and annual flower and medicinal herb seeds. Many of these seeds need to be specially cold-treated first--some in the refrigerator, some in the freezer, and some outdoors--and all for different lengths of time.

I also decided to plant potatoes for the first time and ordered five different varieties. I didn't pay much attention to the space requirements, though, and I have now realized that I will be planting about 250 feet of potatoes. That sounds like an awful lot, especially for just the two of us.

My final new strategy will actually affect all of the gardening I do this year, for I have decided to plant, reap, and sow according to the phases and signs of the moon. Here's where the real trouble begins. I had heard before that seeds should be sown while the moon is increasing in size--or heading "upwards" and promoting above-ground growth--and that seedlings should be transplanted into the ground while the moon is decreasing in size, or heading "downwards" where root activity occurs.

This theory made sense to me, and so when a dear 83-year-old friend who spent many years on her own farm told me during a recent visit that planting by the moon does in fact work, I decided to give it a try. She even provided me with a copy of a special free calendar from the bank that outlines everything I need to know.

Back at the farm, I took one look at the calendar and quickly realized that this moon planting thing is a whole lot more complicated than the two simple rules I mentioned above. For the sake of those who have no idea what I have gotten myself into, I will attempt to explain it.

The basic idea is this: You plant above-ground bearing vegetables and flowering plants while the moon is increasing, and you plant root crops (though not onions) and bulbous flowering plants while the moon is decreasing. Simple enough. But then you start to read all the fine print, and planting according to the lunar calendar begins to seem a whole lot like trying to book an airline flight for those incredibly low rates you see advertised in the newspaper. I'm talking about the blackout dates. These are the periods when you are not allowed to fly (or plant). Ready?

Okay, first black out the entire fourth quarter of every month. Evidently the only allowable activities during this time are "turning sod, pulling weeds, and destroying noxious growths." Next, forget about doing anything on the first day of the new moon or on the days on which the moon changes quarters because those days are no good either. Then blackout every single Sunday during the entire year because "planting or grafting done on Sunday will probably not succeed, as this day is ruled by the sun, and therefore considered a dry and barren day."

This brings us to the signs of the zodiac. Apparently each of the twelve zodiac signs is governed by a part of the body and has certain traits, including wet or dry tendencies and barren or productive characteristics. These are important because every day the moon is in one of the twelve constellations, and if it happens to be in a dry and barren one you aren't supposed to plant anything.

My calendar from the bank explains all of these facts and many, many more, such as when to cut your hair, when to paint your car, when to hatch courageous chickens, and the best time to have an operation on your throat. It also lists the moon rise, moon set, sun rise, sun set, and ruling zodiac sign (and its corresponding body part) for every single day of the year. It's fascinating. It's also confusing as hell.

Determined to figure it all out, I grabbed seven different colored markers and sat down to chart out my gardening schedule for the month of April. I have no idea what will come of all this, but one thing is certain: minding the moonsigns totally limits when you can do anything besides mulch.

The way I figure it, April looks like this: the entire first week is useless as the moon will be in the fourth quarter. The first quarter begins on the 8th, with fruitful days falling on the 9th, 10th, 13th, and 14th. All four of those days are ruled by extra fruitful signs (the really really good days to plant), but the 13th is a Sunday, and the moon changes quarters on the 14th, so those two days are out. The second quarter begins on Monday the 15th which is another extra fruitful day. The 21st and 22nd are fruitful, too, but the moon changes quarters on the 22nd. The third quarter shapes up pretty well in April, with extra fruitful days on the 23rd and 24th and fruitful days on the 28th and 29th.

So how does all this relate to my planting? Here's my strategy for April: Start seeds for the designated "first quarter crops" (broccoli, celery, cucumbers, cress, endive, kolhrabi, lettuce, leeks, onions, and all flowers) on the 9th and 10th. Start the "second quarter crops" (beans, eggplant, melons, peppers, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes) on the 15th, and plant carrots, root parsley, celeriac, and as many of the 250 feet of potatoes as possible on the 23rd and 24th, finishing up on the 28th and 29th. There is no mention of when to set out seedlings in the garden, so I will go ahead and do that on the fruitful third quarter days as well.

This isn't the first time I have done something according to the lunar calendar. The couple who sold us our flock of sheep informed us that lambs' tails should never be docked when the moon is decreasing because the blood will have a tendency to drain down and out of the animal, and so Sunday the 20th, a doubly barren day in the second quarter, will be set aside for docking tails and castrating the male lambs.

All of this is, of course, assuming that it will not rain, freeze, or snow on the designated planting days, and that no farm emergencies requiring the entire day to deal with will occur. I'm definitely not going to hold my breath. I was already up the other night starting seeds until midnight (when I stopped for fear that the moon would move into a barren sign at 12:01). My husband tells me not to get so worked up about all this, and to just do things when I can. But now that I have discovered the barren days and the noxious fourth quarter, I know that planting anything during the blackout periods would only bring certain doom to my garden. Basically I am now completely paranoid. **

As you can see, we're already having quite a spring at Windridge. It's crazy and hectic and fun, but it does get a little overwhelming. I'm thinking that maybe next year we should just plant flax--on the correct moonsign day of course.

* Big Chip and Skinny Chip, as they came to be called (despite the fact that both of them are enormous) are 11 years old and doing just fine. They have incredibly sweet dispositions, still love to be pet and hugged (in fact they demand it), and have proven over the years to be quite useful to have around. Click here to find out why and to read a little more about them--and for one of my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes.

** While I still do my paranoid best to mind the moonsigns in the garden, I have since discovered that things are even more complicated than what my free calendars have been telling me. I'm talking about an entire book devoted to the subject. Click here to read my review of Astrological Gardening: The Ancient Wisdom of Successful Planting & Harvesting by the Stars by Louise Riotte.

There are more stories where these came from. I'll post announcements on Farmgirl Fare and In My Kitchen Garden when the next one is up.

© Copyright 1997 & 2007 FarmgirlFare.com.

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3 Comments:

Blogger kitchenmage said...

I'd say that all that calendar stuff gives me a headache but it might be the wrong phase of the moon for the blood to be moving in that direction in relationship to my head and then where would I be?

The red crayon image will stay with me, for far too long I am sure...

4/24/2007 9:37 PM  
Blogger Callie Ann said...

Yes, I enjoyed this story very much with my cup of coffee this morning. Although I had no little baked goodies to go with it. I do hope however that the next insert will be sooner than 6 months. But,I also realize what a busy, busy lady you are. I thank you for sharing your stories with us.

4/26/2007 8:54 AM  
Blogger BettyWestern said...

Flaxing hell! I finally got around to catching up.

I have a serious question for a cahnge Susan - what happens to te umbilical cord if you don't happen to turn up shortly after the birth? Do they just remain connected? Sorry, real city girl question isn't it!

5/11/2007 10:58 AM  

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