Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Garden Planning, Part 1

This fall there was a mad rush at our house to get the garden cleaned up for the winter. Fur trapping season was in full swing, we were still canning and freezing vegetables whenever we found a spare hour, hockey season was starting for my oldest, and life felt like it was going by way too fast. Now that we have some snow on the ground, the ponds and creeks are locked up in ice, I've had a few moments to sit back and reflect on this past gardening season. I realize most die-hard gardeners start planning for next year about 2.2 seconds after they've picked their last onion, so I'm probably late to this game.

Summer 2012 was a record year for our family, as far as the value of the produce we grew. The amount of food that came out of 700 square feet of raised beds really was a surprise. The really amazing part of it is that I know I can probably improve that by about 25%, after seeing where I didn't make ideal use of the space I had. There really is no substitute for experience when it comes to intensive planting.

Despite all my efforts, I wasn't able to make enough compost for next season. I'm going to have to work even harder on that next year, probably by building a second compost bin. Surprisingly, a 4x4x4 compost bin filled to the brim, turned, and filled again just doesn't make as much compost as you'd expect. At this point, when I think I have enough, I'll double it and that should be closer to enough.

There is no fertilizer on the planet better than chicken poop, as far as bang for the buck. It's more or less free and holy smokes do plants grow when treated with it. Not just any chicken poop. It needs to be composted or rotted down first. About a month seems to be the sweet spot. First thing next spring I'm going to shovel all the chicken poop I can find into a barrel, mix it with a few shovels full of dirt, a squirt of water and let it sit. Right about the time the growing season hits its stride, I'll have a great supply of awesome fertilizer to side dress with.

I grew lots of things that are nice to have fresh, but just aren't worth the effort and space. One of these, and I know this is probably some kind of heresy, is salad greens. Now I know they don't take up much space, and I love a fresh salad as much as anyone, but I don't want to commit garden space to something that I can't store for more than a couple days. Next year, greens will be grown in containers on the back deck. Along with this comes a general shift in focus away from growing all the things I love to eat to growing things that I will still have in January. Not all, I'm still going to grow greens and melons, etc, but we're going to commit more space to things that we can freeze, can, or just store for the winter. This means more tomatoes, squash, potatoes, onions, peas, beans, etc, and less of the stuff that just doesn't store well.

Next year...
I've added 7 new raised beds, expanding the total area of raised beds to 1400 square feet. I've also started preparing an additional 1900 square feet of new garden that will be shared between corn, potatoes, winter squash/pumpkins, and melons. I don't really know how I'm going to prep this soil in the spring, as much of it is still in sod. Double digging 1900 square feet of ground just isn't going to happen, so I'll probably get out the tractor and tiller and try to work some chicken poop and some compost, but in reality that soil just isn't going to produce the way my established raised beds to. I'm still looking for ideas that don't include buying a ton of fertilizer or compost to add to it.

More chickens. Our hens have an irritating habit of stopping laying for no perceptible reason. Wyandottes are great birds, but I see myself adding 6  Rhode Island Reds. I'm not sure that this will fix the problem of periodic stoppages to egg production, but at least it might help me find out if it's something I'm doing or if my current birds are just fickle. Plus, more chicken poop!

Last year's sweet corn patch was in ground that had never been planted into anything but grass. Surprisingly, I didn't have much trouble controlling the grass in that patch with some hand weeding and a hoe, but HOLY MOLY CATNIP! I'm not sure how, but the amount of catnip that grew over the summer was kind of astounding. Mostly for other reasons, though, that area will be included in a chicken paddock, including a new mobile coop I'm building out of an old trailer frame. That will allow me to move them around throughout the year, especially bringing them closer to the house next winter where water and electricity are easier to access.

More coming in part two of this, later this winter...

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Accidental squash hybrid

I like to save seed. There's just so many reasons to save the seed from what we grow, reasons I'll go into in another post someday soon.

But sometimes, you don't get what you thought you were going to get.

Last year, I planted my butternut squash about 50 feet from my pumpkins, separated by a patch of watermelons and cantaloupe, which should have been enough to prevent cross pollination. So last fall, I picked a couple of the best looking squash from the best looking plant, and kept a couple envelopes of seed. I keep the seed from each fruit separate, so that I can tell which ones grow the best. By chance, I was given a few packets of butternut squash seed to try and I planted those in my main squash patch and I planted my saved seed in a second, smaller patch. I was a little surprised when the second patch plants grew long vines instead of the shorter vines and bushy form that my butternuts usually have. I was even more curious when they didn't set fruit when my other squash did. But gardening season is busy and I didn't think too much of it until one day a few weeks ago, I went to take a closer look at the plants and found very small, approximately 5 inch pumpkins growing on the plants.


The only thing I can assume is that one of the pumpkin vines grew very long, as mine did last year. There were some vines that grew upwards of 50 feet, grew up a lilac bush, and then produced a 10 pound pumpkin 7 feet off the ground, hanging from that lilac bush. If a pumpkin vine grew close to the squash, I suppose it could have cross pollinated, and then just by chance I saved seed from that particular squash.

So I started doing some research on the subject, and lo and behold, butternut squash can hybridize with some species of pumpkins. Interspecific hybrids are rare, but this just happens to be one that can happen. The Latin name of butternut squash is Cucurbita moschata. The Latin name of most varieties of orange pumpkin is Cucurbita pepo. In my research, I found a paper published by Purdue University stating that those two species can hybridize.


My mini-pumpkins are not very productive. Out of approximately 20 plants they have only produced about 8 fruit. They grow very quickly to about 5 inches across, and then start to turn orange. I don't imagine that soil fertility is the reason for their small size, as they were planted in an old chicken run, complete with a whole summer worth of chicken poop. However, the neat factor of this even though it's not what I was hoping to grow, is very high. The vines are still setting fruit, so maybe I'll end up with some number of cute little pumpkins out of it.

Another interesting thing about this is that this small patch of hybrid squash/pumpkins is a LONG distance from any other Cucurbita species of plants. Somewhere in the vicinity of 200 feet. That means that these plants have most likely self pollinated to produce the fruit that they have set. That means that they are not sterile and if I save and plant seed from them, I might get yet another interesting result. Or, the seed could be sterile and I'll get nothing. Either way, I love to tinker so this is pretty cool to me.

Another point worth mentioning is that hybrids of those two species can be crossed back with one of the parent species. This hybrid is of butternut squash and a small-medium sized pumpkin similar to a Jack-O-Lantern cultivar. I did not plant all of the seed from that batch, so next summer I'll plant some of them strategically in an isolated Connecticut Field pumpkin test patch, and some more in an isolated butternut squash patch, and see what I get out of those crosses. I might get a better tasting, very large pumpkin. Or I might get some other weirdness. Or I may get nothing. But, there's something pretty neat about possibly developing my own variety of pumpkin, squash, or whatever the end result might be.

I am very curious to hear from anyone who has experience with this situation, as I would like to learn more about how to properly manage the future experiments with this seed.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Tis the season for composting

Composting is great. Right? Yeah! Really. We know this, so I'm not going to go into why. What I am going to talk about is how, usually, composting is a great thing that you can't (or don't) get enough of.

So you pile up your garden and kitchen scraps all spring and summer. You pull weeds and add those to the pile. Maybe you even dump some lawn clippings in there. All spring and summer you have this beautiful pile of material just composting away, home to millions if not billions of perfectly happy thermophilic bacteria doing their happy little thing.

Come spring, you go to add that beautiful compost to your garden and realize that you should really have about 5 times as much as you have. At least that's how it always works for me. No matter how hard I tried last year, I don't have enough compost this year. Personally, I choose to use no commercial external inputs (stuff I bought to improve something) to my garden. In fact, the only purchased external input to any of my food production is the occasional bag of chicken feed, especially during winter. This means no fertilizers, organic or otherwise. My only sources of fertilizer for my gardens are compost and chicken poop. I acknowledge that the chicken poop is at least partly external, but that's a work in progress as well. It takes a LOT of finished compost to properly amend 1500 sq feet of garden, and that's if I ignore the sweet corn patch, potato patch, and pumpkin patch. The way I calculate it, a pile of finished compost 4 feet high and 4 feet square is enough to put 1 inch of finished compost on about 800 sq feet of garden. That's only about half of what I'm going to need at a minimum, come spring. Maybe less. So my goal is two finished compost piles 4 feet cubed by spring, and this is how I'm trying to help get there.

My beautiful daughter picking clover flowers. We mow and rake this stuff up for the compost bin.

Compost everything but the kitchen sink. Almost. Newspapers, junk mail (no plastic or glossy papers though), eggshells and all food scraps that don't have meat or oil in them. Tissues and paper towels used for wiping hands, etc. Leaves, grass, weeds, sawdust, and straw. Think about how much of this stuff you might throw away in a year and put it in your compost pile. Cardboard should be torn up or shredded first. I rip up paper too.

Don't waste lawn clippings. If you have a lawn, especially this time of year, it's tempting to just blow the clippings back down and let them mulch. They're usually short as the summers dry out the ground and the grass doesn't grow as much. If you can, let the grass grow a little longer and then bag or rake it up for the compost pile.

Do you have some space that you didn't plant this year? Seed it with yellow or white clover and grow compost. Really tall clover plants get a woody stem and don't compost as easily, so if you plant clover you should compost just before it flowers. The stems are still not too tough and it's at its nitrogen fixing peak. Pulling the roots up with the plant will move those nitrogen fixing nodules into your compost bin.

If you live in the country you probably have an area that you just let grow into tall grass. I mow this down, rake it up and put that in the compost bin too. This works great if you find yourself adding a lot of greens and not enough browns to the pile. Mow it down and let it dry in the sun for a few days before adding it to the pile.

Do you have chickens in a tractor or on pasture? They scratch grass all to heck, and always leave a layer of dead grass laying where they've been, especially if that grass was a bit long. I rake this up and put it in the pile. This stuff is great, it's dried and coated in chicken poop. That's about as good as compost gets.

Do you have bedding that you use for pets or livestock? I switched from using pine shavings to straw and grass bales for chicken bedding in the winter, because it composts faster than wood shavings.

If you plant cover crops, you can choose to work those into the ground where they are, or they can be chopped and added to the compost pile so you can choose where you need their nutrients later on.

If you burn natural charcoal or wood in your grill, some ashes mixed in are beneficial as well. The drawback to this is that wood ash will make your compost and your soil quite alkaline. Use wood ash only in small amounts, or offset with ingredients that will acidify the pile such as oak leaves, pine needles, or other material that is very high in tannins or acids. Of course, if you have exceedingly acid soil this is an easy way to solve that problem.

At a certain point, everything starts to look like potential compost. Some more extreme ideas:

Occasionally I walk down the ditches on the old dirt road with a machete and cut clover, pigweed, mare's tail, wild sunflowers, and other large plants. Stuff that's big enough that you can bind the stems with a string and carry them over your shoulder. I can add 10 pounds of high nutrient compost to my pile on an evening walk this way. Plus it's great exercise. You'll want to make sure that anything you cut from a road ditch hasn't been sprayed, but if you're familiar with the area, you'll probably know that already.

This time of year, my shore fishing trips end up with me dragging a lot of coontail and other aquatic weeds back to shore. Throw it in a bucket and put it in the pile too. If I had more time, I'd actually gather the stuff just for this purpose. Pay attention to where you're collecting this stuff from, though. Chemical contamination is always a concern.

With doing these things, I currently have a compost pile 4 feet high and 4 feet wide both directions, in a chicken fence bin. It's still not enough.

The next key is making sure your compost finishes as fast as possible. A full bin makes it hard to add more. Plus, if your compost bin is breaking down fast and the pile is shrinking down into finished compost, you'll be more likely to add more to it. Add a little soil from a healthy garden bed to introduce beneficial bacteria to the pile. Large compost piles are a miserable chore to turn. That usually means they don't get turned often enough. A second bin that you can move the compost back and forth between makes this much easier. Pay close attention to the moisture in the pile. large piles will hold moisture in the bottom for weeks after the top half dries out. Turning solves this problem usually, but watering the top of the pile lightly, so that only the top half gets damp, will help between turnings.

Another thing to keep in mind here is quality of compost. A compost pile composed of nothing more than grass clippings isn't going to create the quality of compost that a more varied pile will. You may end up with plenty of nitrogen, but you're risking micronutrient deficiency. The more different things you put in there, the better the compost you'll make. Also consider taking a lesson from the permaculture crowd and supplementing your compost with urine. Gross? Maybe, but urine from a healthy person who doesn't take any pharmaceutical drugs (or illegal drugs, obviously) is a fantastic fertilizer. There are studies showing that fertilizing tomato plants with diluted human urine can increase yields significantly, somewhere in the area of 50% or more. Guys, peeing on your compost pile not only adds nutrients that that the beneficial bacteria in the pile use, it also adds nutrients to the finished compost. Ladies have found various solutions to help with this process as well.

I think, oftentimes, composting is looked at as a method to dispose of scraps, and that's all. However, by investing a little more time and attention in composting, you will also create the perfect soil conditioner for your garden, fertilizing and improving soil tilth at once. And it doesn't have to cost you a dime.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Chick Basics

It seems that over the last few years, chicken keeping has become more popular, especially in rural areas. Farm yards that previously had only a shaggy dog or two now seem to often have a small flock of chickens, or as in the case of my (almost) neighbors, turkeys, guinea fowl and peacocks. This really isn't surprising, considering increased awareness of food quality and safety as well as a general consensus that the quality of the food we buy in stores just isn't what it should be. Compared to other methods of raising your own food, a few chickens is actually a pretty low maintenance setup, once established. It's a great way to provide eggs and meat for a family concerned with what's in the chicken products they're getting at the grocery store.

Chickens are for anyone who has the appropriate space and time to dedicate to them, and the desire to make some interesting friends that will help turn kitchen scraps and some grain into eggs for breakfast. That's pretty much what chickens do. They turn stuff you can't eat into stuff you can. If you cook a lot of meals at home and tend to have a lot of leftover vegetables, bread, grain products etc, chickens will happily convert all of that into eggs for your next breakfast. Add in a bit of commercial chicken feed and/or some scratch grains, and six laying hens will provide you with 10-12 dozen eggs a month during the summer. Even if you fed them entirely commercial feed for that month, they would probably eat less than 50 pounds, which costs about $16. That comes out to about $1.50 a dozen for farm fresh eggs. Try finding that deal in you grocery store. Plus, it takes only about a half hour every other day to tend to them, once you have them established in a quality coop with a proper run.

Most people have their first interaction with chickens in the spring, when the farm supply stores carry chicks. Spring and summer are the best times to bring new chicks home. In fact, if you live someplace where the winters get cold, spring or early-mid summer is about the only time to start. If you're looking at layers, they need to grow and feather out well before it gets cold, and raising meat birds in winter would be an exercise in frustration (where I live at least) without a well heated building. Young chicks can not tolerate cold drafts, and even juvenile birds would have a difficult time in an unheated coop on a night where the temps dip to around -30F as they do sometimes here. The best bet is to obtain layer chicks in the spring or early summer so they can grow strong before winter comes, and to raise and butcher meat birds during the summer. Of course, if you have warm weather all year, this doesn't apply.

So I ran out and bought two layer chicks! Now what?

As it is all too often, purchasing chickens can be an impulse buy. You're walking through your farm supply store in April and there they all are, hopping around and peeping your (or your daughter's) name. They're so cute! Mom/Dad, can we get one please? No wait, we better get two (or twelve!) so they don't get lonely. It's almost impossible to say no, especially if you've ever thought about trying your hand at chickens. It's the perfect excuse, isn't it?

Hopefully you put some thought into the actual keeping part before you left the store. Some places sell a chick starter kit that has a small feeder, some feed and a waterer. If you didn't, that's no reason to panic either.

First off, chicks need shelter of some kind. Most chicks you see at a store or that you order are 1-3 days old. They have only light fluff feathers and almost no body mass to retain heat. That pretty much means that one icy breath from my ex-mother-in-law could kill them. They are very delicate little critters. At this stage, shelter can be quite a few things. Depending on how many you have, a box with some sawdust or straw in the bottom might do it. For my purposes, I have box made from scrap wood that I set out on the floor of the barn when I bring home new chicks. This brooder is made from scrap wood, and is just a box without a bottom. It's about six feet square and about 18 inches high. This will keep the chicks enclosed and keep any drafts off them until they're about 3 weeks old as long as I don't overcrowd it. Some kind of supplemental heat is almost always necessary, unless you have an 80 degree room to keep the brooder in. Most commonly, a heat lamp is used. Start the lamp out about a foot above the chickens' heads, and raise the lamp a few inches every few days, as they grow feathers and need less and less supplemental heat. Make sure there is an area where they can get away from the heat as well, in case they want to cool off a bit. You can tell if they're cold or warm by how close they huddle to the lamp, or how far away from it they wander.

In a pinch, a small bowl of water and a cat or dog food dish full of chick starter will do the trick. One thing to be cautious of is that a chick can and will drown in a bowl of water. If you have 10 chicks running around in a brooder, it's actually quite likely that one will fall into the water. Even if it doesn't drown, the chill from being wet could mean death if it doesn't find its way to some warmth. A chicken waterer is ideal. It holds plenty of water for a few days and they can't fall into it. One trick to help keep chicks or chickens from kicking their water full of sawdust, straw and poop is to elevate the waterer slightly. In my winter coop, my heated waterer sits on top of an old tire rim laid on its side. This keeps the water much cleaner. In the brooder, I just set it on a chunk of 2x6 from the scrap pile. An old phonebook would probably do it too.

What to feed is a pretty simple question with a lot of potential answers.The simplest answer for a first time chicken keeper is to buy commercial feed. I recommend a quality commercial chick starter for the first 4-6 weeks for layers. There are several good varieties, personally I use Purina when I buy any kind of feed, but I have used others as well. Medicated or non-medicated is a question worth putting a little thought into. Personally, I don't agree with giving medicated feed. I treat animals for illnesses they have, not for what they might get, but that's a decision you will make based on your own plans and ideals. After that period, switch to either a flock raiser feed containing about 18% protein, or a layer mix containing about 15-16% protein. The protein is critical for egg formation when the chickens reach laying age. Too little protein will mean either low or no egg production.

Once you're set up with shelter, food, and water, the next step is to get into the routine. I change water in bowls daily, even if it looks clean. If you're using a bucket with nipples or some other sealed watering method, you can obviously go longer as the water can't be easily contaminated by the birds. Bedding should be changed whenever it is visibly soiled, or there is a smell of ammonia or any other nasty smells. Pine shavings are good for young chicks, as you can pile it up a few inches deep, and it won't need to be changed as often. Straw works too, but it absorbs less. Feed should be available at all times for such young birds. A ready supply of food and water helps them stay warm and healthy.

So, to summarize, the basic principles for new chicks are:

Give them adequate shelter
Keep them warm
Give them quality food
Always provide clean water
Keep them out of their own waste
Make sure they have enough space to move around

It's really that simple. This will get you through the first few weeks, giving you plenty of time to think about things like building chicken coops, paddock shift designs, and natural feed mixtures.  :)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Grow your own chicken feed?

Growing my own chicken feed for winter, because I'm a tightwad and don't like to spend money!

note, part 2 is available here:

Drying dandelions on the chicken tractor.

Chickens are a key piece of my self-sufficiency model. They provide food, fertilizer for the garden, and I will use them next spring to clear and till ground for a new garden. They dispose of scrap food and help keep grasshoppers in check. Feeding them during the summer is pretty easy. Even if there isn't enough food in a chicken's paddock, run or tractor, there are dandelion, clover, alfalfa, berries and other things they love to eat growing just about everywhere. As of now, I've got my layers in an 8 foot by 8 foot tractor which is moved every day. They graze on the dandelions, grass and other plants, and dig for bugs and worms. In the tractor is also a hanging maggot feeder that provides necessary protein for laying eggs. The chickens also get fish scraps when we fillet walleyes, they get kitchen scraps, and once a day I chop down whatever other good stuff I find growing while I'm picking wild asparagus or just driving home from work. This combination allows me to reduce the "purchased" feed to about 1/4 pound per day for all 6 chickens. That "purchased" feed is a mix of corn and black oil sunflower seed. I feed about a handful of this once a day, that's all.

Storing enough feed for winter is a different story. Because chickens are so important to me, I want them to be in the best health and produce the best eggs that they can. To me, this means not feeding commercial chicken pellets, or other commercial feeds. As I said, feeding them in the summer is easy, there's food everywhere. But how to provide a diverse, balanced, proper diet for them in the winter?

One method would simply be to go to your local feed store and have them mix up a batch of high quality organic grains and nutrient supplement. As far as the health of the chickens goes, this would be a great diet for them. It's also expensive. One of my goals is to have everything that I grow be a net contributor to our diet or finances. If I spend more to feed my chickens than it would cost me to buy fresh, free range organic farm eggs, then my chickens are not a net contributor. I'll even take it a step further and say that I want them to cost me nothing. And, I think it's possible. I'm not going to address paddock shift designs or free ranging or anything related to summer feeding. Here, I'm only going to talk about how to store enough high quality, free or nearly free feed to get your chickens through the winter. Oh, and did I mention this is my first year attempting this?

What to grow?

So, first things first, we should have a list of things that we know chickens like to eat. This is a list I copied from somewhere and pasted into my chicken notes file. I can't remember where it came from, so I can't give credit for it, but thank you whoever you are.

american persimmon 

black locust??
buckwheat, grain
caragana sp.
day lily
elderberry, blue
forage pea
hairy vetch
hickory nuts
hulless oats
lamb's quarters

oaks (acorns)
oilseed radish
pasture grass
sea buckthorn
siberian pea shrub
xanothocarns sorbifolia 

I've included the entire list because even though some things aren't options for me, they may be later on, or for someone else. The next step is to reduce that list to the things that I can realistically grow and store before winter. That means removing the trees and slow growing perennials that wouldn't be ready to become forage before the snow flies. Unfortunately this means we're going to be including mostly short lived annuals, but that doesn't mean we can't plant those other fantastic chicken forage plants like mulberries, they just aren't of use to me in the short term.

buckwheat grain
hairy vetch
lamb's quarters

I have included blackberry and raspberry because even if they do not produce berries, their foliage is a quality chicken feed. Plus, I already have both growing. Realistically, I don't need to grow everything on that list in order to provide a quality winter feed mix for my chickens. I'm going to just arbitrarily say that I need to have 3 kinds of grain/seed feeds, and 3 kinds of green/hay type feeds, at a minimum. So, the things I already have growing are a good place to start.


There is a large amount of alfalfa and clover that grows in ditches near my house. All I have to do is walk a half mile with a machete in hand and I can fill my arms with both of those.

Blackberry and raspberry will make good additions to the hay mix. Realistically I can't cut/pick enough for it to be a main part of the mix, but it will provide nice variety for my birds.

I have dandelions all over the place. Nice big ones with nice roots. Periodically I grab an armful and lay it out to dry, I expect this to be a large part of the feed mix for this winter.

I have a decent sized sweet corn patch, and the birds get any ears that can't be eaten or sold already, but this year I will put a small stack of ears away to dry and feed over the winter. I have also started a patch of yellow dent corn that I will dry and store for winter feed.

Nettles grow in ditches and fenclines all over the place. I am told that after they are dried that they no longer sting. I'm going to dry some out over the summer and test this on myself before feeding them to the chickens. If this works, nettles would be a great addition to the feed mix for winter. They grow large and fast and are loaded with vitamins and minerals.

Grass is something I'm not sure about. My birds love the tall fescue that grows in my lawn (or what was a lawn before I decided to stop mowing it and let it become a grass jungle) and eat it happily, however I'm not sure that there is any value to storing it for feed. Grass provides very little nutrition even when it's green and fresh, it seems that there may just be no point in storing grass. The one notable exception to this would be if it has gone to seed and has intact seed heads.

Sunflower is a great feed crop. I've planted sunflowers in all kinds of places around the place, and will pick the heads and dry them for feed when they're ready

There are two other crops that I haven't yet mentioned, but that are great chicken feed and chickens love eating them.


I didn't include those in the main list because they can't really be dried out and stored for winter (except the seeds). However, they are such good feed and provide so much volume of feed, I will be storing both in my root cellar for the winter, and feeding them to the chickens for as long as they last. Ideally, small pumpkins and squash would be better than large ones, so that they birds can eat them up before they freeze in the coop. That's perfect, because the small ones aren't much good for carving or selling anyway. I've fed both to my chickens pretty much since I brought them home. I just lay the pumpkin or squash on the grown, chop it into thirds with a machete, and toss it in. They gobble up the seeds first, but they eat the pulp too.

So, how much of all this am I going to need?

Well, I've discovered that when it comes to commercial feeds, most chickens eat about 1/4 to 1/2 pound of feed per bird per day, during the winter. So if I cheat high and store enough to feed 1/2 pound of food per bird per day from November 1 until April 1, that should be a pretty good start on things, as far as arbitrary guesses go.

So, figure 5 months times 30 days, 150 days. Times 1/2 pound per day for a bird equals 75 pounds per bird. Times 6, 550 pounds of feed. That's commercial feed which they eat 100% of. There is waste in this like pumpkin skins/stems, alfalfa/clover stems, etc. Let's use it as a starting point anyway, since we already rounded up to 1/2 pound per bird per day.


So about half of that by weight will be grains and half will be hay/dried greens. 275 pounds of dried hay is going to take up some space. I better clean out an area for that this weekend. 275 pounds of grains, that doesn't seem so bad. Between sweet corn, field corn and sunflowers, that should be doable. I'm also not sure where pumpkins and squash fit in that equation either. Let's adjust numbers a little bit.

200 pounds of grain
200 pounds of hay/dried greens
100 pounds of pumpkins/squash
Whatever kitchen scraps are available
garden scraps


That seems a little more possible. And, if at the end of winter I run out, I can always buy a bag of feed. It's not like my chickens will starve if I guess wrong. I'm learning here, after all.

I guess I better get busy picking and drying some dandelions, clover, and alfalfa. And, as always, I welcome your input. This plan is a work in progress, I'm sure I'll make many adjustments before winter comes.


Thursday, May 30, 2013

No Chemicals Please!

Sometimes, in my quest to do things what I see as the "right" way, I hit little bumps. Sometimes we may just need a reminder why it's not ok to go squirt a little roundup on that stubborn thistle that wants to grow in our carrot patch. It's easy to have good intentions, it's a bit harder to actually follow through.

So, in order to help remind myself, and my family, and anyone else who might read this, I've assembled a list of the most common farm chemicals and their negative effects. This may seem a bit like I'm focusing on the negatives here, but in my view, there really are no positives to using these chemicals. Whatever short term gain they are designed for is far outweighed by the long term loss.

Let's start with the top 5 most used herbicides and pesticides in the USA.

   -disrupts/reduces production of human sex hormones
   -kills tadpoles
   -causes genetic damage to human and animal cells
   -laboratory confirmed link between exposure to Glyphosphate and cancer, ADD, miscarriage
   -causes genetic damage and immune dysfunction in fish
   -causes genetic damage and abnormal development in frogs

   -contaminates lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater easily
   -skin, eye irritant
   -severely disrupts reproduction in amphibians and other animals even in very low doses <0.1ppb

   -acid and salt formulations cause blindness on contact with eyes
   -linked to Lou Gherig's disease
   -causes ataxia, miscarriage in rabbits
   -causes weight loss, nerological issues in dogs
   -causes retinal degeneration in rats

   -Respiratory, skin, eye irritatant
   -highly soluble in water, groundwater contaminant

   -eye irritant
   -possible carcinogen
   -likely disrupts endocrine function

Soil fumigants, possibly the most toxic chemicals used in industrial agriculture

Methyl Iodide
   -if inhaled, causes  ataxia, cough, diarrhoea, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, sore throat and vomiting
   -Highly toxic to most animals
   -known carcinogen
   -potential ground water contaminant
   -causes miscarriage

Metam Sodium
   -highly toxic
   -known carcinogen

   -highly toxic poison gas

How about a few others, maybe the common household ones?

   -residential use outlawed in 2004
   -symptoms in people include abnormal blood pressure, abnormal heart rate, breathing difficulty, chest pain, anxiety, convulsions, dizziness, coma, tremor, twitching, abdominal cramps, vomiting

Carbaryl (Sevin)
   -can cause nerve damage with long term exposure to high doses
   -can leech into streams and lakes and kill beneficial aquatic insects

I could type all day long about this. Really. The list of chemicals one might encounter on a farm or even a garden is staggering. If you're wondering, these are the "common" ones listed here.

Yeah, four pages of names, and that's just the "common" ones. And that doesn't include fungicides, insecticides, etc. I don't want to eat that stuff, do you?

A couple weeks ago, I started a batch of dandelion wine. I just went out and picked flowers. I can do this because I know that there have been no chemicals on my property in years. Of course my neighbors down the road complain about all the flowers, they blame their dandelion problem on me. I tell them that it's not a problem to have a pretty, edible plant that requires zero care growing everywhere. They just shake their head and go back to spraying 2,4D all over the place, while their grandson plays in the yard.

Yesterday a neighbor told me that they can't grow anything without chemical fertilizer and herbicides. I tell them that's not true, they can actually grow more, but they're going to have to get their hands dirty. Change tactics, think differently. This is usually met with a blank stare and the feeling that the person I'm talking to thinks I'm wacky. There are better ways than spraying everything full of poison. There are pioneers in this area named Sepp Holzer, Joel Salatin, Paul Wheaton and many many many others, all of whom have succeeded at growing food and animals without synthetic chemicals. There have been stacks of books a mile high written on the subject. There are hundreds if not thousands of websites like that are loaded with information. Can't grow anything without chemicals? That's ridiculous. Maybe they believe me, maybe they don't, but it would be a shame if they or their family got sick because someone was too lazy to weed the tomatoes.

This is not a scientific publication, but here's some references anyway.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Garden status update

Considering that it's the end of May, all of my gardens are way behind what I expected at this point. The weather has been very uncooperative. Crops that were planted early either did not germinate, or took so long to germinate that there was no point in planting early. Cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, peas, and onions were all planted on May 1st and 2nd. Onions are finally now coming up, 27 days later. Peas came up quickly, but growth has been very slow due to very little sun. The ground is waterlogged thanks to cool temps and 1/2 inch of rain every other day on average.

But, I can finally say that everything is planted, even if some of it still hasn't come up.

Roll call for the main garden, the one I converted to raised beds in April.

Snap peas
carrots (3 different varieties)
Various types of leaf lettuce
Romain lettuce
Cabbage (two varieties)
Brussels sprouts
Anaheim pepper
Green Bell pepper
Orange Bell pepper
Chocolate Bell pepper
Jalapeno pepper
Ancho chile pepper
An unnamed heirloom red bell that I got from a friend of my Mom's
Dr. Walter tomato
Brandywine tomato
Marglobe tomato
Amish Paste tomato
unnamed cherry tomato
Three varieties of onions from seed
One red onion from transplants started indoors about a month earlier
A generic white onion from sets
A generic red onion from sets
Contender green bean

That garden totals about 600 sq feet, after it was all said and done.  It's planted very densely, but I carefully spaced every seed just where I wanted the plants, so I will have to do zero thinning. Any seeds that didn't germinate are replaced. This guarantees that I'll have a staggered harvest of most crops. Not intentionally, but I don't see it as a bad thing either. As soon as the plants are visible above ground, I start mulching with grass clippings from the lawn. As the plants get taller, I build up the mulch. This guarantees that I'll do little or no weeding and water way less than I would otherwise as the mulch holds moisture in the ground. The grass clippings also add nice organic matter to the soil as it breaks down and is hand tilled into the garden in the fall. Just make sure that your grass clippings come from a lawn that hasn't been sprayed with any chemicals. I stopped using chemicals years ago, now I just pick the dandelions and clover and feed it to the chickens. It's a much better use of those nutrients.

Other than that garden, there is a sweet corn patch planted in a freshly tilled garden. I can't use it for much of anything else until the 2nd year because of all the grass that will germinate in it, so it's a good place for that. That garden is about 1000 sq feet, but only about 700 of that is in corn. The rest is planted in a large growing variety of pumpkin.

The third and largest garden is a bit of a family garden. Last I measured it, it was about 6,000 square feet. My father grows sweet corn in about 1/3 of it. A portion is set aside for tomatoes for his house, and the rest I plant into pumpkins, squash, canteloupe, and several varieties of watermelon. Overall, I planted about 2,500 sq feet into those crops. This garden is by far the most work, because it's too large to mulch. We do use a garden tractor to cultivate it until the vines get too long. After that, I chop and drop weeds before they go to seed, and if necessary I get out the machete and a well sharpened hoe to take care of the big stuff. It will end up with more weeds that I'd ever tolerate elsewhere, but there's only so much that can be done about that, and most of the big weeds are dynamic accumulators anyway so they're good for the soil because they grow deep taproots and draw nutrients up from the subsoil.

Last, but not least, is 1/3 of an acre of several varieties of potatoes. Good Friday? Not a chance. More like May 10th. The ground was way too wet to get into before that. There was actually still snow on that ground until May 1 about. These are planted with an antique John Deere tractor pulling a 90 year old potato planter, and harvested with the same tractor and an antique potato digger. This harvest is split up amongst the family, and if there's any left after that 2000 pounds or so is handed out, the rest will be sold at the farmer's market. I primarily plant Yukon Gold, Kennebec, and Norland Red potatoes.

This ended up being a pretty long and sort of pointless entry, I realize now. However, one of my purposes with this blog is to document for my own purposes. If it's of any use to anyone else, that much the better.

Happy Gardening!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Homemade chunk charcoal - a documentation of failure

On a completely unexpected whim, I decided to attempt to make chunk charcoal. Now, I did some research on this before hand. Not much though, as I've seen this done using roughly this method. I want to preface this entire post by saying that this was by all accounts a failure, but I felt it worth documenting, as I find I learn as much from failures as I do from successes.

My basic plan was to fill a steel drum with small chunks of wood, place it above a hot fire and then close it up leaving only minimal venting to prevent a bad bad case of explosion.The idea is that the heat will vaporize off all the volatile gasses and leave only solid carbon behind. That's the plan anyway. It can work, I just got sloppy.

So, step one is to cut up a bunch of wood. Check.
Step two, fill the barrel. Check.
Step three, build a nice hot fire, Check.

This is where the pictures come in.

This is immediately after setting the barrel on the fire. I let it get good and hot to dry out the wood in the barrel. Very little smoke, mostly steam came out of the barrel for the first 20 minutes. When I started seeing actual smoke coming out, I closed up the lid.

The lid on this barrel is just a square cut out and hinged with some tie wire. I set that closed, laid tinfoil over the top to cover the gaps in the lid, and then piled it full of dirt on top to act as weight. This closed the top up nicely, with only two vent holes.

I let this cook for about 3 hours and then took a peek. There was essentially no change to the wood inside, even though it was venting air at about 300 degrees. I decided that it just needed to either be hotter, or cook longer to remove any remaining moisture. I could feel the smoke still had a lot of steam in it, which is what led me to try the second option.


I rebuilt the fire with about enough to burn for an hour or so, and then went in the house. When I checked it before bedtime, the fire was burned almost all the way down and the top of the barrel was cooling. I figured that it was probably undercooked, but didn't want to overdo it so I left it to finish burning down as it was mostly just loose cool coals at this point.

The next day, much to my surprise, the barrel was full of ash.Completely burned down.

So, what I learned from this:
The wood has to be DRY DRY DRY.
Temperature control is difficult at best
Duration is hard to judge unless your barrel has a window.

There are other methods to make charcoal, but this one is easy for me so I'm going to try it again.

Things I'm going to do differently.

I'll use only wood that has dried in the sun for several weeks. Any wood that is recently felled or green will be saved for a later batch.
I'll pay more attention to the heat of the fire, I'm sure it got too hot towards the end when the moisture had steamed off.
I'll use a lid that allows me to check the state of the charcoal more easily, so that I can monitor more closely.
Less heat
Less time

And hopefully, I'll have something that more closely resembles charcoal than ash.

Any and all constructive input is welcome, especially if you've made charcoal before.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Thought I'd make a quick post to update on the dandelion wine. The day after pitching yeast and closing it up, it started fermentation. It's now been a week, and it's been bubbling nicely since then. It's not the nearly violent fermentation that I've seen with fruit wines but it's steady and looks to be coming along nicely. I'm hoping to have a glass after I get done digging potatoes this fall.  :D

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dandelion Wine

Ever since I first became interested in making wine, I've been curious about unique homemade wines. My first batch was wild plum wine and it was delicious, although it didn't keep very well and started to degrade in quality about the time the last bottle was used up at about a year of age. After a few other attempts at non-standard (not grape) wines (mead, blueberry, apple) were less than a great success (the apple was drinkable but not great, the mead tasted like nail polish remover and still does 3 years later, and and the blueberry got contaminated by wild yeast), I kind of put the idea on hold. I mean, I like making wine, but it's a time consuming process and there just wasn't the time to commit to it.

But, somewhere early in my first winemaking adventures, I learned about dandelion wine. What an idea, wine made from flower petals. And not just any flower petals, the most available flower petals I could imagine. I'll admit, the idea of plucking the flower petals put me off for a long time, but this past weekend after seeing all the dandelions blooming in the yard, I figured it was time to take a stab at it.

All of my previous batches of wine were five gallon batches. I have a six gallon primary and a five gallon carboy, but gathering the petals for a batch that size would have literally taken all day. After hunting around the house I came across a one gallon glass jar that my mom brought for making kraut, and a 3 liter plastic bottle that had spring water in it. I don't really like the idea of using plastic, but it's the only thing I could have fit an airlock to easily.

It took me about 45 minutes to pick what looked like about a gallon of dandelion flowers without stalks. Just pick the flower head and remove any flower stalk that comes with it. Sarah and I sat down at the kitchen table and started plucking petals. There may be easier ways to do this, but the method I settled on after some trial and error was to squeeze the flower between my thumb and index finger right at the base of it and roll it. This caused the base of the flower head to tear and kind of unroll, allowing me to pull most or all of the petals away with my other hand. I warn you, this took us over an hour to do a gallon of flower heads and I ended up with stiff hands afterwards.

This gallon of flower heads yielded about 2.5 quarts of petals. I left about 1/2 cup of the flowers whole, as some recipes I've read suggest that this adds some desirable flavor to the wine, at the expense of taking longer to age. The greens of the flower head are bitter if too much is used, so my research suggests they should be used sparingly.

The recipe I worked up was based on several I found on scattered about the internet, and formulated for 1 gallon of wine. My makeshift secondary fermenter is only 3 liters, so I did a little math and adjusted for this. I'll post the entire recipe at the bottom of this entry. An interesting tidbit about dandelion wine is that it does not have a lot of body on its own, and one suggestion I found to remedy this was to add rhubarb to the mix. I just happened to have a quart of frozen rhubarb in the freezer, the last of last fall's harvest, so that was my solution. so I lightly mashed that in a bowl and strained the juice into the primary. The mashed rhubarb

While Sarah stuffed all the petals and the 1/2 cup of intact heads into a nylon stocking with some marbles in it for weight (otherwise it'll float in the primary, you need at least 10 sterile glass marbles), I scrubbed the glass jar and crushed up a campden tablet to rinse it and my other tools with, and started that process. After everything was clean, I lightly mashed the rhubarb in a bowl and strained the juice into the primary. The mashed rhubarb was added to the nylon full of dandelion petals and the whole thing was tied shut and put into the primary. I boiled slightly more than 3 liters of water and poured this over the nylon and into the jar. It instantly took on a pretty yellow-green color. This was covered and allowed to cool overnight.

The next day, I squeezed the juice out of the petals and rhubarb in the nylon, poured the liquid back into a kettle, heated it to just shy of a boil. I stirred in two pounds of sugar, a little bit of lemon zest, and the juice from one large lemon. The lemon is to adjust the PH down as our tapwater is very alkaline, ranging from 7.8 to 8.6 depending on the time of year. This was poured back into the glass jar and allowed to cool overnight.

The following day I sterilized the three liter plastic jug, cut a whole in the cap that would accomodate the rubber cork that the airlock fits into. I poured the whole mixture into the plastic jug, leaving a small amount of sludge behind, added a crushed campden tablet to this mix, fit the airlock and let it stand for 24 hours.

The last step was to add yeast (I always use Montrachet) and a small amount of yeast nutrient and cover it up to keep it out of the sunlight. Right now it's been 26 hours since I pitched the yeast, and there is only a small amount of bubbles forming at the top. I expect fermentation to start slowly, as I did not add as much yeast nutrient as I would have liked, and my yeast is not as fresh as I'd like. I do expect it to ferment eventually, though, and even if it doesn't, I won't deviate from this process if I had to do it over again.

As a side note, I don't know what the starting specific gravity was, due to an unfortunate situation with the drawer my hydrometer was in. However, 2.5 pounds of sugar per gallon of must is a pretty average ratio for a semi-sweet wine. I prefer mine a little sweeter than that,  so with 2 pounds in 3 liters, I've got a ratio of about 2.75 pounds per gallon, which should leave a sweet wine with fairly high alcohol content.

Recipe reference:  <-- this site is LOADED with useful info for home winemaking.

Dandelion wine recipe:

2.5 quarts of dandelion petals
1/2 cup of whole dandelion flower heads with no stems
1 quart cut rhubarb
2 pounds sugar
zest from 1 lemon
juice from one lemon
1 tsp yeast nutrient
1 packet yeast

Monday, April 22, 2013

Egg washing

There's really no way to predict what nature's going to throw at us. I've seen snow in June and 70 degrees in February. The couple feet of snow we've received in the last month has put a serious damper on garden progress, but we're still grinding along. In the face of such a powerful force, all we can do is adapt, and that's what we'll do.

Any real progress towards planting came to a screeching halt a couple days after my last entry. We got about a foot of snow overnight. The next week, another blizzard. A third dumping of snow shortly after that left us with just as much snow as we had in February before it all melted. Hopes of an April planting have disappeared, and as the snow slowly melts, it's looking more and more like it'll be the 2nd week of May before we get anything in the ground.

But, regardless of the snow, the days are getting longer and that's got the layer chickens laying eggs at breakneck speed. Over the last two weeks, our six hens have averaged just over 5 eggs per day. This is great news to a teenage boy who recently learned how to cook eggs and has decided to eat them for nearly every meal. We've finally reached the volume of production we hoped from those six girls, we have all the eggs we will ever need with enough to give a few away to family. That's a welcome state of affairs after a winter filled with very sparse egg production.

A question that has come up around the house several times lately is the question of washing eggs. Ideally, we wouldn't have to wash eggs. Sometimes they are just laying there nice and clean and go right into the carton. Other times, they  will have some volume of mud or chicken poop on the shell. This is especially an issue recently, as one of our hens has decided to build herself a nest right at the bottom of the ramp leading to the roost in the coop. She lays an egg there, and then every other hen follows suit and lays their eggs in the same spot. Then each hen walks over the top of the nest on their way up to the roost. We've got a nest box in the coop, at this point I think my only option is going to be to put something there so she can't make a nest there, hopefully forcing her to use the nest box. But, back to the point, this leaves some dirty eggs. About 45 seconds of searching the internet brings up two methods for cleaning eggs. The industrial method of rinsing them in a very diluted bleach mixture, or simply rinsing them in warm water.

Now, I know that there are people who do not wash their eggs. It's possible to just scratch or rub off any soiling and then put them in the fridge. I don't want to do that primarily because I have two young children in the house, and I don't want them exposed at all to anything in that chicken coop until they're older and their immune systems are better developed. The reason people don't wash eggs is because there is a coating on the eggs that keeps anything on the outside from getting inside. As soon as the egg gets wet, that coating is washed off. The problem with washing eggs occurs because under certain circumstances, a vacuum can be created inside the egg, and without that protective layer, bacteria on the outside of the semi-porous egg shell can be drawn inside the egg. This situation can be prevented by washing the eggs in water at least 20 degrees warmer than the inside of the egg. You can imagine that the bleach/water solution also solves that problem by making sure that there is no bacteria on the outside of the egg to be drawn in. However, the idea of putting bleach on my food is rather distasteful, so I discarded that idea almost immediately.

The method we use to wash eggs is to bring all the eggs into the house after collecting. We have a special egg carton for dirty eggs, and any eggs that need washing go in that carton and go in our second refrigerator. This fridge is used for non-food things, like storing fishing bait, so there's no sanitation issues here. After several hours we know the eggs are cooled to about 40 degrees, we take them out and rinse them quickly in water slightly warmer than room temperature. We then scrub off any soiling with our hands, and give them one more quick rinse to make sure they're clean. At this point, they're wiped off with a clean paper towel and placed into a clean egg carton. No chemicals and no wondering if they're safe to eat.

You may have a preference for a different method, or even one of the commercial egg cleaning solutions on the market. I haven't tried other methods so I can't say that my method is the best, only that it works well for our family. I would be very interested in any other methods that readers would like to share.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

My new hobby.

The subject of gardening was never really high on my radar growing up. First of all, I didn't much care for veggies and the ones I did like, well those could be purchased at the grocery store.  My husband on the other hand has always had an interest in gardening and when I was pregnant with our first child three years ago, he finally drug me over to the green side. I have to say at first, I didn't like it. Dirt, worms, bugs, weeding - it was kind of torture for me to be out there with him. That all changed when things started to grow and I was actually getting to eat some of the things we had planted. It was awesome getting to wander into the backyard and get my salad. (By the way, I still don't own a salad spinner.. I use a pillowcase and it works great).  We put so much work into gardening that first year and we had a freezer full of veggies all fall and winter to show for it, I was hooked.

When my daughter was about 7 months I started feeding her some of our garden veggies and to my surprise, she loved everything. This made gardening even more appealing to me, knowing that I could produce pretty much all of my baby food for a fraction of the cost of buying it in the store.  She is now almost three and I am proud to say she loves pretty much any vegetable you give her, I do attribute much of that to our garden. Our second child will start her solids right around the time our first seeds start to sprout this year, hope she likes her veggies as much as her sister does.

When I had my children I started to become really aware of where our food came from and what exactly it took to produce it. I had no idea what a typical egg laying chickens life was like, how long those said eggs sat on a shelf before someone purchased them or even what a GMO crop was. The more I learned about where our food came from and how it was produced, the more appealing gardening and raising chickens sounded to me.  I have learned so much in the past couple of years and it really feels like every day I learn more. I hope to share some of my learning experiences on this blog, and learn a from others as well.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

To till, or not to till. That is, uh, one question anyway...

I have always tilled my gardens thoroughly. I've always had access to equipment to do this, so it's never really been a question before. This year, though, because I'm switching the garden over to almost entirely raised beds, I ran into a little dilemma. There's no way I can get a garden tractor and tiller into the raised beds without destroying the frame and compacting the soil until it resembles concrete. I have a smaller front tine tiller too, but it needs carburetor work and I just don't feel like doing that while there's still snow on the ground.

So instead, I decided I was just going to no-till. Except that I had planned to till, so the garden is full of holes from digging last fall, and generally not in any condition to seed directly. Now, there are huge benefits to no till gardening. The extensive network of fungi and populations of beneficial bacteria in the soil remain undisturbed in no-till gardening. To make a fairly long story short, this leads to healthier soil and better growth and production. Except for me, it's just not realistic this year.

Ok, I said, well if I can't till and I can't no-till, I'll just build the beds, add amendments and rake it together. I figured it'd be clumpy and uneven, but manageable. I picked up a new hand cultivator and steel rake, and prepared for backbreaking work busting clumps and digging out old roots and grass clumps that grew late last fall.

Boy was I ever surprised. This is a little embarrassing to say, but I've been tilling and using other gas powered equipment to cultivate for so long, that I haven't ever really tried doing it by hand. I pulled out the grass and root clumps using the hand cultivator, gave it a little scratch on the top inch or so of soil to level it off, and raked it smooth. I did a 100 sq. foot bed in less than 10 minutes. Then I scattered finished compost over the bed, and raked that into the top inch of soil very gently. In 15 minutes, I was done with the first bed. I plan on having seven beds like that this year. Even if the other beds take just as long, that's less than two hours of work to prepare 700 square feet of garden bed. That's less time than it takes to put the tiller on the tractor, check the oil, fill it with gas, lube the tiller chain, and check the hydro fluid, not to mention actually tilling.

The other huge surprise was that the soil is nearly perfect. Without the 400 pound tractor driving on it, there's no compaction. I'm starting to think that most of the work the tiller does is to break up the clumps caused by driving the tractor on the garden. And, I didn't spend a penny on gas to do it.

To till? No thanks. Maybe never again. To no-till? Maybe, but it'll have to wait till next year. For now, I'm somewhere in between, just enjoying my discovery that doing something the hard way isn't always the hard way.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The ideal of sustainable mini-farming

I'll be the first to admit, my goals are probably unrealistic. The odds of going from hobby garden to self-sustaining mini-farm in three years are pretty low. But, that doesn't mean we can't try.

So, for us, what does self-sustaining mean?

Well, defining that isn't so easy either. Last year, we had a hobby garden and some chickens. This year, we're working towards self sufficiency with the hope that next year our mini-farm will produce most if not all of our staple foods and enough income to pay for itself. Maybe we should lay out some specific goals for this year.

1. Provide 50% of our staple foods for the following year. This means that we need to grow, harvest, and store enough vegetables that the majority of the vegetables we eat for one year, starting this summer, come from our gardens. This also means that we have to raise, catch, or hunt for enough meat that less than half comes from other outside sources. This is going to be a huge challenge, not only because of the sheer volume of food needed to feed a family of five, but also because it's going to be nearly impossible to quantify this in any way. So we're going to guess. It's really the best we can do on that one. There are also some exceptions to this. We're not going to make ourselves go without things that we can't grow. We want to know that we CAN provide everything we NEED. Not that we will provide everything we want. We love rice, but we can't grow it, reasonably. So, we'll buy rice. This will be factored into the 50% of things that we don't provide for ourselves.

2. Don't put more money into it than we get out of it. This goal is pretty straight forward, once clarified. We are not going to spend more money on the farm than we save or make from it. In the case of chickens, this means that we can't spend more money raising butcher chickens than it would cost for us to buy quality organic chicken. The same goes for garden produce. This means that we have to be creative with feeding chickens, because commercial feed is expensive. In order to guarantee success on this front, we will be selling produce at the farmer's market.

3. Provide higher quality produce than is otherwise available. If what we're growing or raising isn't better than what we could buy at the grocery store, that's not success. I don't mean better tasting, I mean fresher, more nutritious, safer, healthier, etc. It'll probably taste better too, in most cases, but not always. I'm sure my bread won't taste as good as what's available at the store, but it'll be better for my family.

4. Everything must be organic/natural. Alright, personally, I'm not a fan of the organic label. I don't think it's a guarantee of anything. But for purposes of explanation, I'm going to use it with one exception, my goals for organic are going to be even more strict. By this, I mean we will use no chemicals of any kind on our property. Not even commercial "plant derived" chemicals. No more spraying dandelions, if we get potato bugs we'll have to find a non-herbicide solution. If our tomatoes get ravaged by caterpillars we'll be out there with red pepper spray and gloves to pick them off the plants. Anything we put on our plants or soil is going to be something we mix or make, so we know exactly what's in it. This is going to be quite time consuming, but it is essential to accomplish goal #3.

5. In order to cover all other bases, we will adopt as a standard practice will be guided by the definition of organic agriculture given by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. This is as follows:

"Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved..."

Accomplishing these goals will be challenging, and we'll have to find unique ways to meet them. I'm sure we'll fail on some parts of this, this year. Probably next year, as well. It's probably not realistic to set the goal of being self-sufficient by the end of year three. However, without a goal, there is nothing to strive for. If we just say "someday", well someday may never come. I would rather fail to achieve a goal, than have no goal at all.

The Chicken Tractor

This weekend's main project, aside from a continuation of spring cleaning, was to build a chicken tractor. The butcher chickens are getting too big for the brooder, and it's time to clean the winter bedding out of the layer chickens' coop, so I needed a place to put birds.

Chicken tractors can be whatever you want them to be, but in essence, it's a chicken coop or cage without a floor, that can be moved to a different location. I have seen some very fancy designs ranging from very small for two or three chickens, to quite large, requiring a tractor to move them. Many of the designs I've found are too small for our purposes. Currently we have six laying hens, but that could double pretty quickly if we decide we want more. I also need it to be large enough to hold a dozen or more butcher chickens if needed. Also, I don't want the birds to be packed so tightly that they dig down to bare dirt too quickly. For our purposes, we wanted something fairly large, but light enough that my 14 year old son could move it. Now, there are many many websites that have designs and pictures of chicken tractors, so I'm not going to go into that part too much. Suffice to say that if you look at enough different pictures, you'll figure out what you want in a chicken tractor pretty quickly.

We had some 8 foot 2x4s left over from a project last fall, so we decided to use them. Our chicken tractor is nothing but an 8 foot by 8 foot, 4 foot tall cage, wrapped in chicken wire, with a partial roof for shade and a nest box and small shelf for the chickens to roost on at night. Currently, it's incomplete, as I still have to put plywood on the back side both to block wind and to provide additional shelter from hot summer sun. Currently we're staring a spring blizzard in the face, so completion of this project and actually using the tractor will have to wait until that passes.

My son attaching chicken wire to the partially completed chicken tractor. Still to be added in this picture, plywood on the side he's standing on to block wind and sun, a rope attached to the bottom frame to pull it, and a nest box. After that, we'll just put the feeder and waterer in the tractor and move it to a new spot every day or so.

More examples of chicken tractors:

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Dig up some dirt and throw down some seed

Starting seed indoors is a great way to give your plants a head start on the growing season. Plants that are typically purchased from a nursery and planted directly, like tomatoes, peppers, and cabbage can be started indoors to save some money. Other plants can be started as well, although some plants like carrots are best seeded directly just due to the number of plants.

This year, we started several varieties of tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, eggplant, and some other obvious choices. We also went out on a limb and decided to start some of our onions in containers, so they can be transplanted as young plants into the garden, instead of planting sets or sowing directly.

With many varieties of onions needing 85-90 days to maturity, and our sometimes short growing season here in northern South Dakota, starting from seed can give us a little insurance against a surprise shortened growing season. Also, onions grown from seed get larger and grow better than onions started from sets, so it made sense all the way around.

I decided to use an old plastic container that was about 2 inches deep, and filled it with a mixture of seed starting mix, and some soil from our garden. Because onion seedlings require very little space, I was able to fit quite a few seeds into the container, and in retrospect I could have planted even more. Seeds were scattered on top of the soil, with a very light covering of soil to cover them. 1/16 inch or less is just fine. The first few times I watered, I misted the soil with a spray bottle, as potting soil mixture has a tendency to float up and move around easily when water is poured onto it. Even though I used a spray bottle, I still watered quite thoroughly. This disturbs the germinating seeds less. Because onions seeds are sown directly on the surface or just barely covered, they need to be watered frequently so the top layer of soil doesn't dry out, as this will kill the germinating plant.

Our onions emerged about 5 days after sowing, and were placed under a grow light at that point. Eight days after sowing, we have several containers that look like this!

Snirt and soaker hoses

Yes, snirt. That stuff that happens as spring comes, it's half snow and half dirt. The ground is frozen, anything that's not frozen is soupy mud, and we're still at least a couple weeks away from even the earliest plantings. As far as I'm concerned, the name of the season between winter and spring is Snirt. But, there's still lots of other work that can be done, and a good excuse to get out in the warm afternoon sun is never a bad thing.

And so what's on my mind today is hoses! Now is the perfect time to check hoses for leaks, bad fittings, etc. Because of the location of my garden and fruit trees, I have a lot of hose. About 275 feet, actually. This all needs to be unrolled, hooked up, and checked for leaks or cracks. Also, I need to test sprinklers and watering wands, etc. Now is the time to buy any new hoses or fittings, instead of waiting until the last minute and discovering that you're 20 feet of hose short. Also, I'll be picking up a few soaker hoses to use this year, instead of overhead watering. I expect that this will save some water, as well as reduce the risk of fungus or other similar disease on plants.

So to understand exactly how his will work, there needs to be a brief description of the garden layout. I have always planted in an open garden, no boxes or containers. This is the traditional way of growing things, and the most common. It's also very inefficient. I'll go into this more in another post, but for now, the important detail is that this year, our garden will consist almost entirely of four inch high raised beds 24 feet long and four feet wide.

To water those beds, and not the walkways between them, I'm switching them over to soaker hoses that I'll place in each bed immediately after planting, and then leave there all summer. Advantages to this method are that I won't be spraying water into the wind, so it all goes on the ground, and that I'll be able to measure, quite accurately, how much water goes on each bed. To do this, I hook up the entire system of hoses and soaker hose. Roll the soaker hose up and put it in a 5 gallon bucket. Turn the water on and time how long it takes to fill the bucket. I now can calculate the flow rate of the soaker hose in gallons per minute. This flow rate is dependent on quite a few things, such as what the water pressure is at the faucet, how long the hose is running to the soaker hose, and how many soaker hoses I'm running off the same supply. If I want to run two or more soaker hoses at the same time, I put each one in a bucket and time it.

Since my goal with watering is to water less often but water deeper, to encourage deep root growth, I'm going to start with a goal of watering one inch per week, assuming that it doesn't rain at all that week, as I have fairly heavy soil that retains water well. I almost certainly will have to adjust this during the heat of the summer, but I need a starting point. Since my garden beds are 96 sq feet, I'll round that up to 100 sq feet per bed. So, once a week, I need enough water to fill an area 100 sq feet and 1 inch deep. If that were 1 sq foot, 1 inch deep, that would be 1/12 of a cubic foot. For ease of conversion, there are 1728 cubic inches in one cubic foot, and there are 231 cubic inches in a gallon of water. So, divide 1728 by 231 and we get 7.48 gallons in 1 cubic foot of water. Now, we only want 1/12 of that, so divide by 12 to get .62 gallons per square foot of garden, gives us 1 inch of water. Multiply by 100 because my beds are 100 sq feet, and that means I need to put about 62 gallons of water on each bed each week, as a starting point, assuming no rain.

So, once I know how long it takes the soaker hose to fill a 5 gallon bucket, the rest is easy math. To estimate, one brand of soaker hose I've looked at flows approximately 54 gallons of water per hour per 100 feet of hose. Since I'll be using about 50 feet of soaker hose in my 24 foot long beds, that becomes 27 gallons per hour. I need 62 gallons to water a bed, so that means I need to leave the soaker hose on for about 2 hours and 15 minutes. Of course the reality of my setup will be different, and the only way to know is to buy the hoses and test them in a bucket, and calculate from there.

Why do all this? It certainly isn't necessary, I've grown vegetables for years using sprinklers and watering cans. Well, not all vegetables need the same amount of water. By knowing how much water comes out of the soaker hose per hour, I have a baseline that I can adjust from for each bed, based on what's growing in it, the weather, how much rain we've had, and what type of soil I have in each bed. Even going further than this, I can now document this in a journal, so I can track results from year to year, and experiment against that to try to get better production from the garden. Another reason is so that I can water at night, using a hose timer. Less water is lost to evaporation when watering is done at night. Knowing how long the water needs to run on a bed, I just set the timer, turn on the water, and head in for the night. No more checking on the sprinkler every 20 minutes to make sure the wind hasn't changed and isn't leaving an area dry, or that the sprinkler hasn't stuck. Sure I could set a timer on soaker hoses without knowing how much water comes out of them, but I'd rather not guess, when I can know exactly how much water I'm putting down with just a little bit more work in the spring.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Anxious and Worrying

This is going to be a lot of work. Ok lots of things are a lot of work. Not all of them are worth doing, either. This is worth doing, it really is. Right?

Making a fundamental shift in your lifestyle is always difficult. Deciding that we are no longer going to have soda in the house, or that we're not going to eat McDonald's food anymore, those probably don't seem like big feats to someone who grew up living that way. Trying to pry an entire household from the sugary-sweet, boucing-off-the-walls teat of PepsiCo is a challenge akin to moving mountains. Saying we're going to eat more vegetables. We're going to stop eating hormone injected over-medicated grocery store meat. Not only that, we're going to grow more of our own vegetables, and eat them. We're going to plant them, weed them, water them, and harvest them. We're going to blanch, freeze, and can them. We're going to haul buckets and boxes of extra produce to the Farmer's Market to help pay for the costs of growing what we eat. We're going to feed and water chickens and keep the coop clean, picking eggs every day. We're going to chase the escape artist chicken around the yard like idiots twice a week. No only that, we are going to raise up chickens to butcher, process, clean, and freeze. We're going to rake up grass clippings and mulch the garden. We've got to build raised beds and turn a thousand square feet of soil with a shovel. We're going to do all this, and probably a thousand other things we haven't even thought of yet.

Sure, we've done it before, but it's always been a hobby, never a lifestyle. We have always been caught somewhere between the shallow materialistic world of instant gratification and disposable everything, and the idea, the ideal of self-sufficiency. Want one life, and live in the other because we're too lazy to practice what we would preach (if we were the types to preach). We don't really know what we're doing, or where we're going, just that this feels better. So somehow we're going to change the mind of a teenage boy who grew up with a Nintendo controller in his hand, and not a shovel. We're going to raise two little girls into this world, teaching them that this is the right way. How can we be so sure? Maybe in the grand scheme of things, there's no difference between us and the suburban family that obsesses about fancy cars and wouldn't know the first thing about growing a seed. Maybe in the end, it won't matter one bit.

I can say this with absolute conviction. I feel good about this. That's all. In a lifetime of being worried about this or that, and too scared or lazy to change things that I wished I could change, I'm going to take a leap of faith here and trust myself. I feel good about this. So even if I fail, that's not the end of it, it's just a bump in the path.

Yes, it's going to be a lot of work, but I really believe that it's worth it. It's a scary thought, knowing that I'll probably fail at more things than I succeed, but it's worth doing. I know, eventually, I can do it, I can change my life for the better, change the lives of my children for the better. And so can you.

Compost in Training

Oh boy, does winter ever hide messes. It's amazing how many surprises are uncovered by melting snow. Between garbage blown by the wind, the neighbor dog's poop, the remnants of my winter "experiments" and things that were dropped or lost into the snowbanks early in the winter, my yard looks like a minefield of things that the lawnmower would just love to chop up into even finer bits and scatter to the wind.

I guess this means it's time to clean up, before too many people see. I roused my teenage son from his perpetual slumber (and I didn't even need the cattle prod this time!), and set out with great intentions. After standing on the steps, unsure just where to start, I came up with a plan.

Step one in this process was building a new compost pile cage. Last year I just made a pile in an unused corner of the garden. This year, after seeing how nice last year's compost is, I decided I wanted to make a much larger compost pile. This has two advantages for our family. First, compost is an excellent soil conditioner for the garden, and we will have much more free compost to mix into the garden this fall. Second, nearly all of the kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, and paper products from our house can go into the pile and not into the landfill. Most people know that food scraps and lawn clippings will compost, but did you know that most of your junk mail and old newspapers, after removing glossy paper and plastic, can go in the compost pile as well?

We started by driving four steel fence posts into the ground to make a square about 5 feet across both ways. Steel wire mesh left over from building the chicken coop was wrapped around the square, and fastened on one corner so that the mesh can be removed for easier access into the enclosure for stirring and removing compost. The mesh I used is four feet wide, making a four foot tall enclosure, so I left the posts sticking about four feet out of the ground.

After it was built, in went some pumpkins and squash that didn't get used and were starting to rot. Then we added whatever paper, cardboard, small sticks and branches we picked up in the yard, and a garbage can full of used chicken bedding. As the spring cleaning continues, we'll add last year's corn stalks that are still standing, more chicken bedding straw, leaves, kitchen scraps, paper and whatever other natural materials we would otherwise throw in the trash. Later on in the year, lawn clippings that aren't used for garden mulch, any weeds pulled from the garden, damaged garden produce, sawdust made cutting firewood, and many other things will find their way into the pile.

Composting is a simple concept, but there are some things that should be kept in mind. Sooner or later just about any pile will compost, but you can speed this process up significantly in a few ways.

-Aeration is important, the pile needs to get air to keep alive the aerobic (oxygen loving) bacteria that make composting work.

-Add material in layers. Alternate green and brown (wet and dry) material, using about twice as much brown as green material. This prevents too much water in the pile, which will lead to anaerobic bacteria growth and that telltale smell of slough mud/sewage that we want to avoid.

-Damp. A compost pile should never completely dry out, nor should it be so wet that you can squeeze water from the material. If you live in a wet climate, you may need to cover the pile with a tarp to keep excess rain off. If you live in a dry climate, you'll probably have to water it with a hose periodically.

-Turn the pile every few weeks when it's active and generating heat. Just stir it up with a pitchfork or potato fork to mix in that outer material that hasn't composted, and get some air into the middle to provide oxygen for the bacteria.

For more detailed information on composting, I'll post a few links at the bottom.

At the end of the day, this project didn't really clean our yard up much, but it's a necessary task so that we can return those nutrients to the garden soil without adding chemical fertilizers, and so that we can re-use a few things, rather than just dumping them in the landfill. I guess this post is proof that I'm easily distracted, because the yard is still mostly a mess. But hey, I have a nice compost pile started, and I can pick up the trash on a warmer day next weekend. Right?

Links, as promised

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Spring is here... Sort of...

It's the last day of march, technically spring has been here for a week and a half, but you wouldn't really know it by looking at the yard. We're looking at a late spring this year, compared to last year when we had the garden worked and were planting by mid April. As it is now, there's still a foot of snow on the garden, and I haven't let the layer chickens out of the coop yet.

However, that doesn't mean that there isn't work to do. As much as I'd have liked to plant potatoes on Good Friday, it just wasn't happening. So, instead, we picked up our first 11 broiler chickens.

Because of the late spring, the chickens at the local farm supply store haven't been selling. That's a win for us, because we were able to buy two week old Cornish Cross chicks and save two weeks of feed. We brought the chicks home and turned them loose in a makeshift brooder that they'll live in until they're 3-4 weeks old, or until the weather is nice enough to move them into a chicken tractor in the yard. Our chicken brooder is very simple. It's a 6x6 foot square enclosure, 2 feet high, made out of scrap wood and lined with straw. I put this in the corner of an outbuilding with a heat lamp, waterer and chick feeder. It took less than an hour to prepare the whole thing. If we didn't already have all this stuff laying around, we still could have bought everything to make the brooder for less than $50 and been able to use it year after year. A plastic waterer runs about $12, a chick feeder is about $5, a heat lamp and bulb is less than $20, a straw bale is about $5, and if you don't want to buy plywood to build the walls of the brooder, you can duct tape cardboard together and then just throw it in the compost pile (minus the tape) when you're done with it. Empty boxes can be had free from many places.

When these chickens are large enough to move outside into the chicken tractor, we'll buy another 11 chicks to put in the brooder. That way we'll have 22 chickens to butcher and freeze for the year, but we'll do them in two batches so we don't have to spend a backbreaking day doing them all at once. It also allows us to use a smaller brooder and chicken tractor than we would need otherwise, and because we have a continual supply of kitchen scraps and garden scraps to add to their feed, we're making better use of that by raising butcher chickens in two batches. And, if time allows, we can do another small batch even later in the year. Since we don't have to build a large coop or special enclosure for the broiler chickens, we can disassemble the brooder and store it away when we're done, and the chicken tractor will become the home for our six laying chickens for the rest of the summer, after the butcher chickens are out of it.

Now, the disclaimer. We've never raised broiler chickens before. We've had laying hens for some time now, but this is a new experiment for us. We have some very good advice from my mom and my brother, both of whom have raised large numbers of butcher chickens before, but we'll have to find our own way through this, and hopefully learn what works best for us along the way.