90 days to Grow and How to Protect from a Freeze.

When April fifteenth rolls around we scramble to get plants in the ground and into production, before the temperature tops 100 degrees in early July. This year we jumped the gun and suffered three freezes already, and expect another this weekend!

gardentarp

To save the plants we put old bed frames in the garden and covered them with sturdy tarps, weighted down by bricks. When the low was 25 degrees we put a small space heater under the thinner of the two tarps. The heater prevents snow collection on the thin tarp and radiates warmth through the tunnel created by the bed frames and heavy army tarp, thus saving the seedlings from a 25 degree freeze. (It worked! We were pleasantly surprised.) But the whole reason we’re in this mess, is to try and lengthen our 90 day growing season.

The 90 day growing season is demanding so we’ve compiled a list of vegetables that can grown from seed to food in 90 days or less. Count back from the first 100 degree day in your area, and you will know the last applicable day to plant each seed variety in the outdoor garden.

  • Cress 10 days
  • Watercress 14 days
  • Green onions 20 days, harvest as needed
  • Radish 25 days
  • Collard greens 40 days
  • Spinach 42+ days for leaves, 70 days for bunches
  • Leaf Lettuce 46 days
  • Potatoes 50 days
  • Swiss Chard 50 days
  • Squash (Summer, Straight- and Crookneck, Zucchini) 50 days
  • Bush Beans 56 days
  • Beets 60 days
  • Cucumbers 60 days
  • Pole Beans  63 days
  • Peas 65 days
  • Hull Beans  67 days
  • Corn 75-95 days depending on subspecies
  • Chinese Cabbage 85 days
  • Endive anytime up to 90 days
  • Peppers – edible at all stages, 90-110 days for ripe

Tomatoes and Okra are tricky picky vegetables unless you live in a humid subtropical environment. Tomatoes do not like temperatures above 85 degrees. They will not set flowers, nor will they color-ripen outside, but if the fruit breaks off the stem when lifting gently, take the fruit in the house and let it color-ripen on the counter. Okra seeds will not sprout until the soil temperature is consistently at or above 70 degrees. They are a shrinking violet of vegetable seedlings. We’re trying them anyway. Hopefully our humidity will be high enough to make the okra happy.

Temperatures fluctuate wildly in our neck of the woods, so we may reach daytime highs of 85 degrees before the end of April, and not maintain a 70 degree soil temperature until mid-May (because of nighttime lows). With ideal conditions, the tomatoes are good to harvest in 56 days, and okra in 60 days.

Some years we have great crops and other years, not so much. Such is the nature of a vegetable garden.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Not a Square Foot Vegetable Garden

The January plan for the vegetable garden did not pan out. After further thought and discussion we decided not to plan a square-foot garden this year. Gardening by the foot is a great way to get the most out of a small space and we have used the method for many years, but a number of factors have led us to try something else.

We do not enjoy weeding. Square foot gardening  negates the need for mulch because plants are tightly packed in small spaces. The problem is, weeds will find a way so we spend a fair amount of time weeding. We are trying the wet newspaper trick this year to see if it helps keep the weeds down. We’ll share our results with you as the year progresses. Despite planting less, we still planted enough produce to take care of our fresh needs and have surplus zucchini and cucumber, in July and August.

Our summers are getting longer. In our region high temperatures rule with a melting fist until mid-October. Most gardeners focus on what plants might over-winter, but for the past few years, we have become more concerned with what plants will survive the ever-longer, hotter, and drier summers. The lack of over-summer vegetables might be negatively impacted by square foot gardening. The proximity of neighboring plants and the resulting increased competition for water and nutrient resources might cause too much stress when coupled with prolonged summer heat. With less intensive land use, the tomatoes and peppers might make it to a second harvest. Theoretically, tomatoes can go dormant during the hot summer days, then flower again and produce in the fall. I’ve never seen this, but rumors persist. Since the dawn of agriculture some 6000 years ago, planting cycles have been based on the knowledge of these kinds of active/dormant blooming cycles.

El Niño, La Niña ocean-atmosphere cycles are changing. For the past six thousand years (give or take), farmers relied on seven-year cycles. However, fluctuations began to appear during the mid-19th century. Which might be early evidence of the anthropocene era. The El Niño/La Niña cycles are increasingly erratic. Farmers no longer know when to expect rain or drought.

La Nina years are gray. Data compiled from http://origin.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/analysis_monitoring/ensostuff/ONI_v5.php

At the end of the 19th century, scientists adopted the Peruvian name for these very old cycles and started monitoring them only to discover that the farmers are on to something: Ocean-atmosphere relationships, and therefore weather patterns everywhere, are changing. At the time of this writing, La Niña is prevailing which means less precipitation in our neck of the woods. That means the garden will need more watering this year, so we plant less to make sure each plant gets the water it needs.

We have a brand new soaker hose to help out on the watering front. I am so glad to have a soaker hose buried in the garden. Under that newspaper it delivers water to the roots so we save water, time and money.

That large C by the Zucchini is a Cilantro plant. Yum.

Speaking of time and money, our business obligations are evolving. We might see more business related travel this year. If that is the case, this garden can fight the good fight without so much help from us.

Taking all of these factors into consideration, a square foot garden does not make sense for us, at least not this year. This is what the new and improved garden layout looks like.

Hopefully,  the newspaper will stop the weeds (or at least some of them), production per plant will rise, and everything will taste delicious. Whatever happens, we’ll keep you posted.

 

It’s chick season! Or is it?

Every year we debate the costs and benefits of purchasing new chickens. This year we have a new idea. But first, a little backstory…

Two years ago we started with a mixed flock of twelve, then lost three birds to predation, and so purchased three more birds last spring. We lost eight birds at various points through the past year (hawks and owls, we think) and one more last weekend. So now we have two hens. We are tired of losing chickens. They are the ultimate prey birds. Even our hardy girls, Vera and Bossy, are at risk. It’s in their nature. They vanish during the twilight hour, just before it’s time to lock them up in the coop for the night. We even moved the girls to the back porch in January, but to no avail. Edna vanished the same day we shot this compost video.

The last three girls: Edna, Vera, and Bossy were/are Jersey Giants. We think their intelligence (if you can call it that) helped them survive. Sadly, they are not impervious to hungry foxes, hawks, owls, or other predators. Interestingly, the Jersey Giant is the largest breed of chicken. Their size probably contributed to their survival more than anything else. We were sad to discover there are no larger chicken breeds in existence. However, there are turkeys.

For the past few days, we have researched turkey keeping in North America. This is what we’ve learned.

  • Turkey’s are native species in North America and they can tolerate the weather swings of our region.
  • They lay larger eggs less frequently and those eggs pack a more nutritive punch per gram by volume. (Yay B vitamins!)
  • Adult turkeys are not victims of predation near as often as chickens.
  • Numbers of wild turkey populations are in decline, but that same species, Meleagris gallopavo, is also domesticated and we can buy numerous varieties of the species for our little homestead.
  • The most popular commercial birds (Broad Breasted White and Bronze Turkeys) are no longer able to reproduce on their own so we’re not interested in them.
  • Hens do not gobble, only toms, and only when it’s mating season (or when they feel threatened).

These are all good reasons for us to switch to backyard turkeys, but there are some drawbacks.

  • The eggs have four times the cholesterol of chicken eggs. Yikes.
  • They need a stable at night; a coop is too small.
  • Waterers and feeders need to be elevated so the birds don’t knock them over or poop in them.
  • Everything needs to be bigger.
  • Turkey chicks and poults die at a higher rate than chicken chicks and pullets.

For cooking needs, three turkey eggs are roughly equivalent to five chicken eggs by volume, no shells. To keep us in chicken eggs we needed at least three chickens which works out to about 18 eggs during good sunshine and nice weather weeks, as few as a dozen during cloudy or cold weeks, and seven eggs per week through the winter. To keep us in turkey eggs we’ll need four turkeys which should produce 10 or 11 eggs during good weeks, 7 (maybe 8?) during less pleasant weeks, and 4 (rarely five) through the winter.

If we ate other dairy, poultry, or meat products we would not be able to justify the extra cholesterol. We don’t, so turkey cholesterol is an acceptable trade-off (for now). If we were reliant on these eggs for all of our protein needs and B vitamins we would need many more birds. Luckily, we aren’t, so we don’t!

Our newest plan to produce organic, homegrown, bird eggs requires a lot of prep work on our end. First, we need to dismantle the current chicken run, then rebuild the stall that the 2013 tornado destroyed. It needs to be a turkey stable with sturdy, low, roosts. We’re going to try the deep bedding method outlined by this Swedish guy (Simeon, he’s great) who has many, many videos about poultry keeping and homesteading: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tcx26yWdvac

After contacting some local suppliers of turkey poults we learned they do not start selling them, typically, until mid-summer, so they will be ready for slaughter in November. We might buy from farms that sell butchered Thanksgiving birds, if they are willing to sell live ones at a much cheaper price, and if we can find Auburn Heritage birds.

The AH birds are a hearty, pretty brown, calm, large bird. Adult hens weigh ~20 pounds and adult toms weigh ~36 pounds. The hens start laying at seven months old, and the species can reproduce on their own if the need should arise next spring. Wild hens with a 100% pasture diet produce 2 eggs a week, but the domestic bird with a 50/50 feed/pasture diet can lay 3 eggs a week.

If we can get all the prep work taken care of by mid-summer then this plan is go-for-launch. Either way – we’ll keep you posted.

 

A Minimalist Pleasure Garden.

Pleasure Gardens are traditionally public parks. Being rural(ish) we have a few acres of yard that we keep covered in grass. Not a cultivated perfect grass, but a very natural clover and dandelion kind of lawn. We are careful not to use fertilizers or herbicides in the hopes of slowly converting the yard into a permaculture dream-come-true. But that takes more funds and back-breaking labor than we have to spare. So, I’ll settle for a low-maintenance DIY pleasure garden.

First on the to-do list is pick plants. Although we maintain an edible garden, that is not what a pleasure garden is for. This garden is for enjoying nature, albeit a slightly tamed version. Here are some of the easy-care plants we currently have:

  • Sedum for height.
  • Morning Glories for climbing.
  • Hyacinths and Irises for the rocky places.
  • Lillies for marshy places.
  • Wild Violets as groundcover in protected areas.

We hope to add:

  • Hostas in the shady spots.
  • Aeoniums for geometric interest (most varieties look like fleshy roses).
  • Butterfly Bush for, well, butterflies.
  • Nasturtium for pretty and for eating (they taste like black pepper).

What we’d like to add but find impractical:

  • Roses
  • Hibiscus varieties
  • Geraniums
  • Dahlias

The vibrant beauties of the no-can-do list are too tropical in both sun and water requirements for our growing zone. The humble plant additions above should succeed in our zone and require little overall care; thus fulfilling the requirements of a minimalist pleasure garden. As this plan develops we’ll post updates and hopefully one day, pictures!

Minimalist Garden

This year we are planting a  low intensity, high yield, minimalist garden. Last year we made an elaborate, detailed, plan for the garden with a wide variety of plants and cycling plant/harvest schedules. We planned in the bullet journal and posted it on Instagram. It was a great plan, like others made by mice and men…This year we’re following a less intensive regime.

Our soil makes vegetables spicy, and that’s great – unless the vegetables are typically sweet. Zucchini, tomatoes, spring onions and okra are tasty in spicy dishes so we’ll plant those to provide fresh ingredients for our spicy Italian, Mexican, and Cajun favorites. We’ll amend 1/5 of the garden soil with a focus on increasing the acid levels and then try spinach again. If the spinach is still bitter we can switch to plan B; make banana spinach smoothies. 🙂

We’re working within the same space, a 16ft x 4ft garden. We divide the garden into five even plots, each measures 48″x 38.4″. Using the square foot method we know we can plant the following amounts of each vegetable:

  • Zucchini – 8 with cages
  • Tomato – 12 with cages
  • Spring onions – 208
  • Okra – 12
  • Spinach – 108

Here is a drawing for you visual learners:

For the first time, we get to incorporate our own compost into the soil, with manure, and topsoil to replace what washed away in last year’s rain. The chicken ladies made their contribution to the soil last fall, too. This -no frills- plan should yield more reward with less work. We’ll see how it goes.

Growing Along

So we’ve got the garden started!  The hens were in the garden house for about a month and they chewed through all the roots, weeding and feeding as they went. Let me just say working chickens are entirely underrated. After they moved out we let the ground rest (and the chicken poop wash) in two days of rain. Two days after that, the ground was ready for planting and biodynamics indicated it was a good day to plant leaf foods.

We transplanted organic green onions that we bought about three months ago from the grocery store. Green onions are a grass so we kept them in a water/dirt slurry in the bottom half of an Aquafina bottle, mowing them when needed. Green onions are a great addition to most anything we eat so it worked out great. We sprouted the kale and spinach from seed and transplanted on the same day. It took about half an hour for all the work and we made a timelapse video. Timelapse makes everything look easy.

Since then, we’ve planted peas, cucumbers, celery and radish. We also started the peas and cucumbers early and from seed. The celery was an organic vegetable from the grocery store (like the green onions) that we kept in coffee cups and water until the leaves resumed growing. The radishes are just seeds yet and we sowed them directly. Hopefully they’ll pop up soon! We also sowed some more kale and spinach seeds indoors. Although the freeze date has officially passed (yay!) we have may hail dates ahead, and it’s a good idea to keep back-up seedlings so the garden can bounce back after a severe storm.

Also I’d like to share a recent failure. No mother hens have adopted the three chicks. We tried and tried with the hens but each one preferred the freedom of the flock to adoption. Oh well, so it goes. Good news is, the babies are nearing big enough to join the flock! Once they are as big as the smallest two hens then in they go. We’ll be back up to ten hens and an intact rooster. Aiming for that perfect dozen means keep buying more. Maybe Alphonse can help us out in that department. Time will tell! Until next week then, indulge in a little simple heresy.

 

Chickens as Working Animals, and Planting with Ancient Farmers

Hello friends, and Happy Busy Spring!

So the garden house went up without a hitch! (pictures to follow…) The big chickens stayed in the garden house for about a month, sleeping in the dog houses, laying as usual, and chewing up all the greens, roots, and seeds. The whole space is bare now and fertilized thanks to the presents the girls leave behind, and no I’m not talking about the eggs.

We have a flat of Kale and more than a few spinach seedlings to move the garden house where they will be safe from bunnies – which are in vast quantity this year. On the sixth (in the moon-sign of Scorpio) we transplanted the potatoes before thy outgrew their pots. Hopefully, we won’t suffer a late freeze. They looked pretty weakly after transplanting but were perky the next day.

According to the ancient farmers we should transplant and plant leafy items in a Virgo, Taurus, or Capricorn moon-sign which just happens to occur on the 11th of April (Virgo) so that’s the plan. We also have Brussels sprouts, cucumbers and radish but as fruits and a root, we’ll have to wait to plant until the 14th and 16th respectively.

Since the chickens did so well in the garden we made them an official a-frame tractor so they might continue working in the larger yard.

It was a two-afternoon project for the four of us. It’s lightweight enough I can move it by myself, and once S’s water hauling muscles return she’ll be able to push it on her own too. The good news is the chickens can mow two tractor spaces a day. The bad news is we have to move them 2x a day or suffer a bald spot in the yard. Good thing we’re ok with baldness. 🙂

We are happy the chickens are working and they seem happy too. We’ll still have to mow but we get to mow a little less this way and that is very nice.

We do have a bit of bad news: we lost a chicken on Saturday. In the morning we went out to move the ladies and a black australorp was dead on the floor of the tractor. She was completely intact with no visible signs of trauma even on close inspection. We think she might have been egg bound. The night before, she was not in the coop with her sisters, but on the floor and unwilling to fly. After some reviewing and research, egg bound is our best guess.

When a hen is egg bound they cannot deliver the eggs they produce. An egg may enter the vent shaft sideways and become lodged, or caught in an interior pocket. If a chicken keeper is aware of the condition then they can sometimes help the chicken lay with warm water baths and a few other methods, but we were unaware and so the hen died. Now we know to count the different kinds of eggs and pay closer attention to the shells because brittle shells can indicate a calcium deficiency which might lead to an egg bound hen, and if untreated – the loss of life. Turns out calcium helps with the contractions that push the eggs out, not just for shells. Who knew?

Lastly, the Mama hen and baby chick adoption project was an abject failure. No hens were willing to take on the roll of mother and the babies are still in the brooder. They are just emerging from the gangly teenager phase, have full body feathers, retaining little tufts of fluff on their heads. Alphonse is definitely a rooster and has started funny teen rooster chortling. He sounds like a recording of a hen if you ran it through a pitch modulator with faulty electricity so sometimes the playback sounds normal and sometimes it goes too fast, too slow, high or low with no apparent pattern! Yet, without the protection of a mother hen the three are too small to join the flock. They go outside daily to their separate tractor – a rabbit cage without a bottom – and came in at night until Saturday night. On Saturday we cleaned and moved the brooder to the porch and have a heating lamp for when the low dips below 45 degrees F but otherwise they are acclimatizing to the light/dark and warm/cool cycles of outside life.

Well that’s enough for this post!

Until next time – keep it simple!