End of Summer, Looking Back

Summer is drawing to a close. It is late August, the kids are back in school, the winds have shifted, and it is time to take stock.

The not-a-square-foot garden is a success. We’re still harvesting large and small tomatoes and many peppers thanks to some shade cloths. Our compost had a pleasant mellowing effect on the spicy-ness of our produce this year; more on that later. The jalapenos are sweet and the mucho nachos are perfect for salad, and corn salsas. In mid-June the sun was too hot for the squash and cucumbers, but landscaping fabric is cheap. A 36 inch by 45 yard roll costs $5 and provided five, five-foot shades (plus enough left over fabric for next year). We secured the shades to the protective chicken wire that covers the garden, with clothespins.

We bought plastic clothespins initially, 50 for a dollar, and used those to attach the shade cloths. However, the high UV summer sun deteriorated the plastic in three weeks! In early July, we had a nice summer storm with some hefty gusts and a few clips let go. The following day I went out to check the plants are reattach the shades. Every clothespin I touched snapped into pieces. Could not believe it! Now the shades are held in place with wooden clothespins; they are holding up great.

august

The compost we added to the soil this spring, homegrown and three years old, worked wonders. In all years previous, our produce was generally spicy, and “sweet” varieties tasted bland. Up to this point we guessed it had something to do with our clay soil’s ph. Turns out clay soil is not necessarily acidic, but all clay soils act acidic. The local college extension center tested a soil sample and low and behold our clay is acidic, but only a little.

Our compost contains a great deal of eggshells (easily 1/8th by volume) and the calcium from the shells provide powerful alkali cations Ca++. Applying so much eggshell, banana peel, and kitchen waste compost to our mildly acidic soil, has taken the spicy edge off. While we were testing things we tested our well water too, it is mildly alkaline, so the more we water (ie the less it rains) the sweeter our garden will be.

Okra taught us not to jump the gun and transplant too soon. We transplanted four seedlings in April, but the soil temperatures were not yet acceptable. Three of the four seedlings wilted away, but the last one is producing. We supplement our meager production with trips to the farmer’s market this year, but hope for okra self-reliance next year.

Now that the water at the lake is getting cool it is time to plan and plant the fall gardening. This is our first time fall planting so if you know anything about fall gardening, leave a link in the comments below!

We have radish, squash, and bush beans to plant, but that’s about it. We’ll see how it works out.

 

 

 

 

 

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Cilantro is Coriander and Newspaper Weeding Update

Truth: Cilantro is Coriander, and newspaper weeding is a great way to reduce garden work.

But first! Two zucchini, two cucumber, and one okra seedling made it into the garden. They are doing well. The other two okra seedlings died at about three inches tall. (idk, okra doesn’t like me, oh well) We traded the other zucchini and cucumber for a perennial, flowering, Dwarf Nikko Deutzia bush. Yay!

The cilantro (aka coriander) is over-producing. We started hanging bunches in the kitchen today. It takes about a week to dry, depending on indoor humidity, no reason to hurry. At this point, we have enough for the year, and before the season is over we’ll probably have enough for three additional households. At the end of the season, we let the plant mature to produce the seeds. Hopefully we will have volunteer cilantro next year. For ease of use, I prefer using leaves in recipes – fresh when available or dried and chopped when out of season.

May 31st is the half-way point in this region’s 90 day growing season. The harvest to this point includes many salads, so much cilantro, a couple dozen radishes, and a few, early, hot peppers. Already this garden is competing with past gardens in terms of greatest total produce volume, and we still have a 45 to go before it is too hot for the vegetables to bloom. We think the homemade compost is a factor in the success. Despite these successes, our growing season may not last 90 days; we expect a 99 degree day on Friday. 100 degrees is too hot for blooms to set without added help. Perhaps the newspapers will keep soil temperatures lower, and coax the plants into setting more blooms.

Newspaper surrounds the tomato and pepper plants, held in place with the weak adhesive force of damp dirt. The garden receives iv water (if you will) via the soaker hose and leaky outdoor faucet. We have a drip that produces about three gallons a day, which is just enough to keep the plants healthy, and fill an outdoor watering pan for the chickens, dogs, cats, and the bravest wild birds.

The newspaper cuts weeding time tremendously. We did not cover the entire garden, instead, the curly leaf lettuce and red romaine side provide a control group for the newspaper experiment. It works better than expected. There are still weeds, but only 1/10th can grow through the perforations on the papered side of the garden. Nor is the newspaper deteriorating as quickly as expected. It might last into next season. If it does we can mix it into the soil, or remove and compost it. Whatever happens, newspaper weeding is a win-win.

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.

 

 

 

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.