ducks emerge from their pen

Barnyard revolution, part 2

ducks emerge from their pen

Photo by Kathy

I believe the duck revolution has been quashed.

All day Friday, Eddy and Patsy squawked at each other. When we let them out in the yard Friday evening, Patsy tried to round up the flock and make them go where she wanted. Except for Sybil (who quacked in agreement), no one paid any attention. They went right on hunting for bugs where they were.

That is probably when Patsy’s plans began to unravel. Without popular support, no revolution can succeed. Saturday saw only the occasional argument. On Sunday morning Eddy, asserting her dominance again, led the flock into the grazing pen without my orders. It has been quiet since. Relations in the flock appeared to have returned to normal.

I would make another snide comment about the dismal lack of anatine intelligence, but it occurs to me that this matter was settled after only a week, with no bloodshed and (as far as I can tell) no hard feelings on either side. Meanwhile Israelis and Palestinians, Catholics and Protestants, Sikhs and Hindus, Muslim and African Sudanese have been at each other’s throats for decades, centuries, millenia. I’ll defer judgment on anatine pacifism until I see how our ducks respond to a second flock, but having read the newspaper this morning I’ll keep mum on their intelligence as well.

Fomenting revolution in the barnyard

Eddy has always been in charge of the duck flock. She was the largest as a duckling, the first to get all of her adult feathers, the first to finish molting. She appears to be the smartest of the bunch (not that any of the ducks are particularly smart). She takes the lead when it’s time to go into the pen in the morning or into the house at night; if a duck is lollygagging off by herself, Eddy checks on her to make sure she’s all right and eventually rounds her up. She seems to be a good leader, as ducks go, and she doesn’t even seem to abuse her power by taking the best slugs.

It appears that we may have a revolution in the making. This afternoon Patsy harrassed Eddy mercilessly, chasing her around and squawking at her for the better part of an hour. Sybil, always a follower, joined in and pecked Eddy or no apparent reason. Normally if one of the other ducks gets uppity, Eddy gives her the business, but not today. Kathy felt so bad for Eddy she gave her some chard from the garden, after which Eddy waddled over to Patsy to quack at her about it.

Patsy is the duck who once spent the better part of a week sitting on a pine cone. Now Patsy has always seemed to like me best, but she is just not that bright. (Yes, yes, there’s probably a connection there. I’ve heard it.) So I really do not need to see Patsy in charge. Sybil would only be her toady, but this is the duck that always stands around squawking at everybody; even second in command is too much for her. I’m sure all the other ducks think Eddy’s a narc because she always leads them into the house when I round them up for bedtime, but that’s what I want. I want a nice, quiet, reasonably intelligent, calm, well-mannered duck in charge, not some pine-cone sitting duck who for all I know is out back reading Marx right now.

Could be my imagination, but these ducks seem to be getting bitchier as they get older.

Remembrance of produce past, part 2

My grandmother taught me to eat radishes. Or, I should say, I learned the habit from her; I don’t think she had any grand plan to indoctrinate me. She served radishes and scallions with breakfast, accompanied by individual dishes of salt for dipping. My cousin and I, aged about five, theorized implausibly about why the salt improved the flavor of the radish. We could agree only that without salt, the radish tasted impossibly harsh; with it, like heaven. (I may not have been a typical five year old.)

I have met few people since — all right, no one — who can match my love of radishes. It stems probably from the combination of a country upbringing and an addictive streak that demands excitement and strong flavors. To eat them for breakfast, as I still sometimes do, strikes me as so impossibly old-fashioned that it isn’t even country anymore but rather a bizarre twenty-first century transplant from the German-speaking rural Pennsylvania of 1925.

Saturday I bought the season’s first radishes at the market along with a bunch of watercress, another treat the Pennsylvania Dutch side of my family enjoyed in springs long past. Lacking any direct experience with that tradition, I made this sandwich for lunch, and lacking any desperately pressing work, I did the very German thing and drank a dark beer with my radishes. After all, I needed something to toast my ancestors.

Radish and watercress sandwich

  • 2 slices chewy, hearty whole-grain bread, preferably homemade
  • 1 tablespoon butter, softened
  • 2–3 large radishes, sliced thinly
  • several sprigs watercress
  • salt

Butter the bread. Cover one slice of bread with half the radish slices and sprinkle with salt. Add the remaining radishes and sprinke with salt again. Top with the watercress and the second slice of buttered bread. Serve with a bock or porter.

Remembrance of produce past

When I was young my mother tended a small garden. I’ve forgotten most of what she grew. I assume there were tomatoes (why have a garden if you’re not going to grow tomatoes?). Probably zucchini. My father would have insisted on parsley. There were peas, which I remember because when I was about five years old we ate them for dinner on the Saturday before Easter when the temperature reached ninety-three degrees. (Why we remember certain things from our childhood and not others is a subject for another posting, but suffice to say that nearly all of my most vivid memories from before the age of seven involve food. I can always tell you what we had for dinner the night of any major event.)

What I remember most from that garden are beets. In the early spring, when they were young and tender, we ate beet greens with butter and salt; later in the season my mother pickled them. By the time I was nine or ten she no longer gardened, and I was an adult before I tasted beet greens or home pickled beets again. You can’t buy baby beets with their greens still tender in a supermarket, and store-bought pickles never stack up.

We didn’t plant beets this year — an oversight — but this morning I bought a bunch of baby beets at the farmers market. For dinner I steamed them with their greens If my mother had been here she would have enjoyed them, but I had to enjoy them for the both of us. I offer the recipe (such as it is) in case you are lucky enough to have them available.

Baby beets steamed with their greens

For this recipe, the beets should be no bigger around than a penny and the greens young, tender, and bright green. They should come as whole plants, pulled from the ground, bunched for sale.

  1. Thoroughly wash the beets and greens. Trim the long roots and cut the beets from the stems, discarding the tough part where stem meets root. If necessary, cut the beets into small pieces (no larger than 1/4 inch). Chop the stems and set aside with the beets. Chop the greens and set aside in a second pile.
  2. Place the chopped beets and stems in a pot and barely cover with water. Add a half teaspoon of salt per bunch. Bring to a boil and cook until tender (about five minutes). Then add the greens, return to a boil, and cook another two to three minutes until they too are tender. (It may take longer to cook the greens, but if it takes longer than five minutes, they were probably too old.)
  3. Most of the water should have boiled off, but if some remains, drain the beets and greens. Add a tablespoon of butter and a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice per bunch. Taste for salt and serve hot.

Summer’s end

The cherry tomatoes, undeterred equally by months of drought and by the torrential rains that followed, still bear more fruit than we can eat. Planted two to a pot and having long since outgrown their stakes, they intertwine with their neighbors for mutual support and have strength to spare for the morning glories, whose blue and purple flowers now swarm the fence, clashing riotously with the orange tomatoes.

But even these prodigious plants now weaken as the first frost approaches: we found three tomato hornworms this week devouring the green leaves. One was healthy, plump, nearly the size of my index finger; we pinched off its chosen stem and sent it to face our avian death squad. Saffy, the adventuresome eater, tasted it first but dropped it when bossy Eddy arrived. Through a fascinating combination of slurping, tossing her beak, and dabbling in the pool, she was able to choke down two-thirds of this huge worm. The last third, snipped off in her bill, fell to the ground, where Francie quickly plucked it up and swallowed it.

Preserving the harvest

With the exception of a few tomatoes and some basil, we have given up on the garden this year. The drought is simply too severe, and the raised beds were taking more water than they are worth.

But professional farmers with drip irrigation systems are surviving, if not thriving, and we have been eating well from the farmers market. I have spent most of my Saturday mornings lately canning. This summer we have put up strawberry and blackberry jam, yellow tomato marmalade, cherries and blueberries for pie, three kinds of pickles, chowchow, pickled beets, and I can’t remember what else.

Most recently I put up sixteen half-pint jars of hot pepper jelly, my own private recipe, which I believe I have finally perfected. A whole habañero in every jar, that’s the secret!

Prayers for rain

On a trip to Pennsylvania in late June I bought the finishing touch for our duck pen: a hex sign. It bears an eight-point star and rosette, for fertility, surrounded by raindrops. The fertility wishes, needless to say, are for the ducks. The rain is for all of us, and dear lord do we need it.

Almost as I crossed the state line into North Carolina with my new totem, a light drizzle began to fall. Bythe time I reached home it was raining, the first real rain in more than a month. Rain fell on six of the next seven days.

Coincidence? Well, yes, probably. But I have taken no less delight in trumpeting my Pennsylvania Dutch heritage and the value of a few good superstitions.

In full bloom

It has not rained for four full weeks. We are barely able to keep enough water on the garden, but the big raised bed is going strong. The cabbage and broccoil have yielded several meals, and we have pulled out the spent pea plants and planted cucumbers at the base of their trellis. (Well, "trellis" is an overstatement: it is a piece of old wire fencing. The peas didn’t seem to mind.) We have eaten the first tomatoes; the potatoes are nearly ready for harvest; and the herbs, which can take a little dry weather, are growing well.

Meanwhile, the ducks are growing fast. They have moved outside now, and they look and sound more like adult ducks: they have all their first feathers, and they are quacking more than peeping. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…


This month we took the big leap into livestock with six Khaki Campbell ducks. (Well—seven Khaki Campbell ducks. We got a bonus duckling from the hatchery. We ordered six females, and I’m sure we have six females, but even if we assume the seventh to be male—which he probably is, because males of laying breeds are not of much value to hatcheries—we have no idea which one he is. So we’ll hold off on naming them until the mystery duck makes himself or herself known.)

The ducks arrived at most two days old; I’ve posted a few early photos below. I am building a section of this site for information about ducks, so look there for more photos when it’s up. By Thanksgiving they will be laying eggs—up to 3 dozen a week among them, so we read, but we’ll see. We’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile the garden is doing as well as we could hope given the lack of rain. The soaker hoses have gotten a lot of use, but we can’t keep the cabbage and broccoli entirely happy. On the other hand, we’ve gotten more sugar snap peas and turnip greens than ever before—we have figured out how to grow those, at least, and they seem to be happy with the unusually warm spring.

Warming up

We planted the tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers last weekend. The raised beds don’t get enough sun to make tomatoes really happy, so we moved them last year to pots along the fence at the bottom of our driveway. That worked just fine so long as we remembered to water them, but the raised beds need regular water anyway. This year we have Early Girls, cherry tomatoes, and some heirloom varieties, and we planted marigolds among the tomato pots to purty things up a bit.

Meanwhile it has been very warm and everything is growing like mad, as you can see below. We still have not had much rain, so the soaker hoses are getting regular use. I’ve included photos of the big and medium raised beds separately.