Living the Country Life

Betsy's Backyard Blog

Betsy Freese is an Executive Editor for Meredith Agrimedia, including Living the Country Life and Successful Farming. She grew up on a fruit farm in Maryland (see and has an agricultural journalism degree from Iowa State University. She and her husband, Bob, a veterinarian, live on a farm in Iowa where they raise sheep, hay, corn, and soybeans.


Twitter: betsyfreese

January 21, 2015

Saving Soil (and Water)

Bob and I were back on the home farm in Maryland last week to celebrate Dad's birthday and help a little here and there. For his birthday, Dad wanted us all to attend the Cecil County Soil Conservation annual banquet. It was a yummy dinner of crab cakes and prime rib, enjoyed by a sold-out crowd of 250 farmers and agribusiness people.

The best part of the evening was the showcase of conservation projects completed and underway on farms in the county. Maryland farmers are under a microscope to keep water clean for the Chesapeake Bay. Dad has been using terraces, cover crops, and no-till on his fruit farm for decades. He was honored as the county conservation farmer in 1983. It's been his life-long passion to farm responsibly, respecting soil and water.

Iowa, where I live now, is starting to deal with water quality issues as tile lines run black topsoil to the river. Many farmers and farm groups are on the defensive, but others are embracing cover crops and more. Let's keep it going.

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January 6, 2015

Amaryllis Bulb, Waiting for Spring

A winter storm blew in yesterday, typical for January in Iowa. Tonight it will drop to 11 below zero, says the weather service. Ugh.

I took this photo looking south from my library. I planted the amaryllis bulb from Longfield on November 17 and it is finally shooting up.

Here are tips on forcing amaryllis bulbs:
1. Fill the container ¾ full with potting soil.
2. Place the bulb in the potting soil and cover with potting soil. Make sure to leave the tip of the bulb exposed. For amaryllis, there should be one bulb for a 6-inch pot. Cover with decorative moss (optional).
3.  Water so that the soil is moist. Do not over-water. Place container in a sunny location in your home.

When growing bulbs indoors, choose a location that receives proper sun requirements. For example, full sun is 6 hours of filtered sunlight per day. Avoid cold drafts or hot, forced air near radiators or heaters.

On the Facebook page for Living the Country Life, I posted a photo of lilacs from my backyard last May and posed the question: "Should we just skip ahead to spring?" So far, the 1,600 comments were leaning yes, although some readers enjoy winter. What is certain -- you love lilacs. More than 23,000 people liked the photo.

December 29, 2014

Favorite animals

Readers of Living the Country Life love cute animals. How can you resist? Here are a few favorites in the past week or two.

Facebook fan Jennifer Ford shared this photo of 13 new piglets born on Christmas.

I gave this stuffed sheep to Bob for Christmas. Here's the manufacturer:

I found this old photo while cleaning out files. My friend Lisa Prater doctored it up for me.

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December 16, 2014

Kittens make a home

I adopted two feral kittens from the rescue center three months ago. They are still pretty wild, but we love them anyway. The male, Mickie, is the friendliest and races around the house non-stop. The female, Mia, is shy.

They are so thrilled to have a Christmas tree in the house. I decorated it with non-breakable ornaments, knowing the cats would immediately climb the tree (they did).

Every evening I get home from work to find ornaments scattered around the house, even down in the basement. Have fun, kids.

Lovely Mia.

Mickie and Mia love to harass my house plants.

The Christmas tree right after decoration and before kitten infestation.

December 9, 2014

Country Christmas cards

Do you send Christmas cards? I still mail a few dozen each year. This year I selected two of my favorite scenes from our small farm. The first shows Warren and Caroline stacking hay while Bob drives the old tractor. Our pond is in the background. In the second, our ewes are enjoying a winter snow. I say enjoying, because the barn was open and bedded for their shelter. They chose to sit outside. Wool helps. When I posted that photo on Facebook one reader was upset that the sheep didn't have any shelter.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all! -- Betsy

December 1, 2014

Home for the Holidays

I flew to Maryland for Thanksgiving this year. Back in Iowa, Caroline cooked a turkey and all the fixings for Bob and Warren (who says she is a better cook than me, and I'm absolutely fine with that).

It would be hard to beat my mom in the kitchen. I especially enjoyed the creamed mushrooms, as well as the sugar cookies, orange rolls, and cranberry relish. When I left to fly back to Iowa she was baking fruitcakes. One will arrive by mail soon. I can't wait.

It snowed the day before Thanksgiving. Right before I took this photo there was a clap of thunder.

By the next day, most of the snow had melted. Mom's Christmas cacti are unbelievable.

Dad found this tiny wooden yoke (for a goat?) in a local antique store. I bought it for him as a Christmas present and he hung it over the fireplace.

A second after I took this photo, the white rooster flew up and attacked my head. I screamed and then had a good laugh. The relative who owns the chickens (I will call her "Laura Jensen") wondered about his breed. I put his photo on the Facebook page for Living the Country Life and got hundreds of guesses. He's a crossbreed.

These mushrooms were picked fresh in Oxford, PA, and delivered to Mom's front porch one morning. She made creamed mushrooms and mushroom-pumpkin soup.

Fruitcake production began at 7:00 a.m. Fisher prepared the many pans while Meghan mixed the nuts and fruit. Mom handled the sugar, flour, butter, and eggs. Mom keeps a list on her fridge of who gets each fruitcake. When I called her from Iowa that evening she still had the last batch in the oven.

Close up of the nuts and fruit. The night before, I chopped the dates, figs, pecans, and walnuts.

Raspberry jam and blackberry wine gives the raw dough a purple color.

The final product.

We did our Black Friday shopping at the local estate auction.

I rolled out the refrigerated dough for Mom's thin, crisp sugar cookies, decorated with sprinkles by grandchildren. A tin of these made it to Iowa in my carry-on bag.

We visited a local artist and found this wonderful sculpture on her porch.

My friend Robin came over one night to cook a special mulled cider brew on Mom's stove.

Mom deserves a good book and a nap after the busy week.


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November 19, 2014

Lots of Lamb, coming and going

Our rams are busy now. We weighed and sorted all the lambs and sent the young replacement ewes (below) to meet one ram, while sending the second Hampshire ram to breed the experienced ewes.

Bob let that group into the alfalfa field behind the barn where they found an open gate and got into my garden. Something had to eat the frozen Brussels sprouts.

The heaviest wethers went to the auction market where they averaged 125 pounds and got the top price of $1.60 a pound.

On Monday, we shipped boxes of frozen lamb on dry ice to family in Maryland and North Carolina. Merry Christmas!

New baby lambs are due in April.

November 10, 2014

Tillage radish harvest

I've been growing a few tillage radishes in the garden, just to see how big they will get. I dug them yesterday because the ground is going to freeze solid by the end of the week. They can withstand a few frosts, but they will rot once the ground freezes.

I peeled one and roasted it in the oven with olive oil and salt. It was mild and delicious. The sheep will eat the extras.

Please send me your tillage radish photos:


November 5, 2014

Hedge apples

Our pasture fenceline is full of hedge apples. Is that what you call them? Other names are Osage oranges, horse apples, monkey brains/balls, and more.

I always put a few in the basement as an insect repellent. Bob uses the wood from the trees, cured a year or more, as fence posts.

You can read about the facts and myths about hedge apples here: A few highlights:

1. The trees were named for the Osage Indians and widely planted in the Midwest as a living fence.

2. The wood is extremely hard, heavy, and durable. It shrinks less than most other wood.

3. Iowa State University toxicologists extracted and concentrated compounds from hedge apples and they were found to repel insects. However, the natural concentration in the fruit was too low to be an effective repellent.

October 28, 2014

Top 2 Fall Plants

I planted dahlias for the first time this year and they are stunning. The flowers started blooming in early July and got bigger and bolder each week in October. A hard freeze will zap them in a few days, but I will cut the blooms and bring them inside for another week of show.

The variety I planted is here:

My second favorite fall plant is Brussels sprouts. This crop takes off in late summer and can stand a frost or two. I picked these beauties yesterday.

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