Homestead in a Heatwave
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
My dad was a quintessential, salt-of-the-earth farmer. He used many colorful expressions to describe everyday events. One of them came to mind this week as I was working in the gardens, and I could almost hear him say it: “Hotter than blue blazes out here!” For the first time, I considered what that phrase actually means. A bright blue flame in a wood-burning stove indicates that a hot, efficient burn has been achieved.
We’re in the midst of a historic heatwave in the Pacific Northwest. Record temperatures are being recorded on both sides of the Cascade Range. The extreme heat is wearing on both man and beast; it can make gardening a daunting chore as well. We have begun on-the-hour checks through the hottest part of the day to make sure that the rabbits, ducks, chickens, and cows have plenty of water.
The rabbits get misted regularly, because they can’t tolerate high temperatures. Bunnies are especially affected by the heat. The adults seem to endure it better, especially the butterscotch-colored buck we refer to as The Old Guy. He keeps eating and playing with his food dish as if he has the perspective of advanced age and simply won’t be flummoxed by weather fluctuations. One of the does kindled this week. We don’t know if her kits (babies) will be able to handle the heat, and--because they are newborns--we can’t mist them. We’re hoping for the best.
Ducks are able to tolerate high temperatures, as long as they have shade and water. Our ducks are doing well in those conditions. They enjoy a misting, but they really come waddling (the Walsh Harlequins) and running (the Runners) when a muddy puddle is created for them to drill in. Egg production has remained consistent.
Chickens don’t do well in the heat, even with shade and water. They don’t sweat to cool down; they pant. Water on the ground helps, and cuddling up to the cow’s water tubs seems to be a favorite place for many of them. They haven’t given us as many eggs in the past several days, and I don’t blame them. Though I’ve never laid an egg, I imagine doing so in this heat would be unpleasant. One of our hens went broody shortly before the heatwave started. She’s in the brooding coop, where we’ve made accommodations to keep her cool and comfortable; we’re crossing off the days and hoping that the developing chicks are coming along nicely in her capable care.
The cows are hardy. Their paddock is in the shelter of tall Oregon white oak trees, and they have a loafing shed to shelter in if they need deeper shade. We’re keeping their water topped off. Milk production dipped a little at first, but it’s come back up to normal levels as Lissy and Buttercup have acclimated to the heat.
As an aside: We mourned the loss of Emily’s bees last fall when they disappeared from the hive. We prayed through the spring for a swarm to replace them. This week, we’re glad that we didn’t receive that swarm: it’s so hot that the comb would have been in danger of collapsing. It’s good to remember that “no” answers to prayer are blessings too.
The gardens have been getting extra water these days, especially the smaller sprouts and transplants. Many of them love the heat, as long as they get enough water. Two weeks ago I worried that the corn wouldn’t be “knee high by the Fourth of July" (another of dad’s sayings). It will be well over that tall by Independence Day. The squash, too, are going like gangbusters, as are the tomatoes and beans; the cucumbers and melons are finally taking off--heat is just what they needed.
Weeds love high temperatures as well, and they are proliferating. With all the additional heat-related chores, we’re having to turn a blind eye, mostly. As long as they don't choke out desirable plants and don’t go to seed, weeds can wait.
We took care to make sure that everything was well mulched before the heatwave got into full swing. Anything that would work--grass clippings, straw, raked up bits of hay, trimmings, rabbit litter—was placed around the plants to protect them from the sun and keep the soil moist.
Surprisingly, some of the comfrey plants seem to flag under the heat. Their leaves curl, and they look miserable. When nighttime’s cooler temperatures arrive, however, they recover. The Thelma Sanders’ sweet potato squash usually get droopy in the heat; we’ve come to expect it, though it’s still alarming to see squash plants that looked vigorous in the morning hours begin to droop pathetically by the afternoon.
Raspberries and strawberries need to be picked every other day, regardless of the heat. They won’t wait, so we must “make hay while the sun shines.” The raspberries are getting extra misting to avoid crumbly berries and to try to prevent sunburn. We’re thankful for the berries and for a freezer to store them in. Next winter when we’re drinking berry smoothies, we’ll remember these incredibly hot days.
The greenhouse, a geodesic dome from Growing Spaces, is staying at or below 95 degrees, thanks to the large water tank that works as a thermal regulator. The plants are watered daily, and we mist them midday if they look like they need it. We also spray the stack-stone walls to cool and humidify the air.
We’re taking care of ourselves, too, by drinking copious amounts of water. Quart- size canning jars filled with water and tucked into the refrigerator refresh as only cold water can do. A nap in the middle of the day makes up for early mornings and helps our bodies recuperate from working in the heat and "sweating like a butchered pig." A wet kerchief around the neck is cooling and can be easily refreshed with a garden hose. Skin creams help restore parched skin; our favorites are Weleda Skin Food and Silver Biotics Advanced Healing Skin Cream. For skin irritations and sunburn, we like to use Silver Biotics Silver Gel. Our deodorant choice is Weleda's Sage 12h Spray; it works well for the whole family. When the bottle is empty, we fill it with our homemade body spray, which we've dubbed Vanilla Glen. To buoy weary spirits, we strive to be patient and kind to each other: it’s much too easy to get cranky as the temperature rises. Making life "half as hard and twice as good" is always sound policy, but especially so during trying times.
Once we get to the other side of this heatwave, I’m hoping we’ll be more like the old, butterscotch-colored buck. With new high temperature benchmarks, perhaps we’ll be less flummoxed by hot weather. Maybe we’ll even think ninety degrees is a lovely temperature. It sure sounds good right now.
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