Waiting (and getting ready for) spring

A crocus in our yard from last spring
A crocus in our yard from last spring

Winter has seemed pretty long, even though we are having a relatively mild winter this year, here in the U.P.   We have a lot of snow, although definitely not as much as last year, and it doesn’t seem like we have as much as I remember us getting when growing up here.  The temps are still pretty harsh, but at least we get breaks in between the REALLY cold days  (if you can call 15-20 degrees above zero a break – I do).  This is always the time of year that everyone is tired of winter and just ready for it to be over.  Just like most gardeners, I have been busy planning my garden for this spring.

I went all out with my planning for this year.  In the past I usually have not been as organized – I usually plan some,  but get a lot of stuff spontaneously later in the spring.  I’m mostly used to gardening down in lower Michigan, but the Upper Peninsula has a shorter growing season.  Our winters can be 6-8 months long (I have actually heard of snow in July here, although I don’t remember ever seeing it).  I have grand plans of canning a lot of food for next winter, so I want to have everything ready, and make sure I have enough time to harvest everything – and have it all grow in time to be harvested.  I learned a few things about this the hard way last year – I put in Tomatillos in July (they were just over pea sized by the time everything else was dying for the fall).  I had a pumpkin plant that only produced one very small pumpkin, because they need 110 days – I just don’t have that long here.   My tomatoes would not ripen on the vine – I ended up bringing them in and ripening them in a sunny window. (My mom said something about cutting the suckers off the plants to ripen them, which I’ve never had to do – the tomatoes I was growing didn’t seem to have these “suckers” that I could find).

I went through my box of seed packets that I already had – some were leftover from previous years, and some were new “on sale” seeds I bought last fall. I figured out what I wanted to grow from those, and I looked online to see how long different kinds of seeds can last.  Depending on the plant, seeds can be viable anywhere from 2 to 5 years.  I actually had some really old packets from 2007/2008 – those got tossed.    I ended up with a decent assortment of vegetables and flowers, but there were things I wanted to try this year that I needed new seeds for.  So I got to ordering.

Last summer I got a nice catalog from a company called Horizon Herbs, and their catalog had lots of really good information about their seeds and a good variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers.  So that is where I ordered my new seeds.  They had some different “Ancient Grains” seeds, so I am going to try to grow Amaranth this year – it’s supposed to be good cooked up as an oatmeal kind of thing, and for bread.  And I figure if we don’t end up liking it, the chickens probably will.   I also found out that artichokes can grow as an annual, so I’m going to try to grow some – I don’t know how big the artichokes will actually be, but it’s worth a try.

I was careful when picking seeds out, from both my old supply and the new order, to make sure they are shorter maturing varieties.  I have some white corn seeds that are 90 days, and I found one (yellow corn) from Horizon that needs  70 days (called Fisher’s Earliest).

I had made a rudimentary drawing before my order, but then because of some things not being available, and some changes to what I decided to grow, I redrew it. The new drawing actually plans for how big everything will get, and also has space so that we can actually walk between plants.  (My son got mad at me last year trying to get around in our garden because it was a jungle without actual pathways between plants. He’d get trapped behind tomatoes trying to get to the zucchini).

garden plan
Here is my main garden plan for this year.

The plan above is actually only one bed – a new one I’m planning.  We built a fenced-in area for our dogs last year, and this will go next to it, utilizing one wall of fencing from the dogs’ area. I didn’t have space to draw it as one big 10×30 grid, so the drawing is split in half, side by side. I drew it on graph paper, making each square foot of the garden = 4 graph paper squares (so I could actually write names of plants in).   I have another bed that will have acorn squash and watermelon, and onions, and some other stuff.

I also ended up ordering a few fruit plants for this year – raspberries and strawberries and elderberries – I’d like to try to make elderberry wine.

One other thing about gardening where I live is that I definitely need to fence it in.  We have deer that will hop anything less than an 8 foot fence, I’ve been told.  My garden last year was left alone by animals though, even though my fencing was pretty crude –  I only had a 4 foot fence and it was made of old fence scraps I found around the yard (we didn’t have money at the time to buy new fencing).  I found some snakes and toads in there (they helped me with bugs), but I never saw evidence of rabbits or deer. For this year we have some leftover 5 foot fencing (from making the dog fence in the fall) that I believe will be enough to close in the new garden bed – I’m hoping the fact that my dogs run around a lot in their enclosure, actually next to both gardens, will help to deter deer from jumping in.

Now I just have to wait for all my new seeds, and spring to get here!

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Adding chicks (friends for Peepers)

Peepers Feb 13th
Peepers Feb 13th

Our plan was to get a new incubator and hatch some more eggs.  We wanted another batch quickly because I worry about Peepers being all alone.  I was going to save all the eggs from this weekend, buy an incubator this weekend, and start some new eggs tonight.

Thursday night I was washing some eggs, and I realized that the shells have gotten a bit thinner lately, because one broke while I was washing it.  They are usually pretty thick – when you crack them to cook, it takes a couple of hits to crack them.   Thin shells means the hens aren’t getting enough calcium.  We’ve been giving them corn along with their regular layer crumble because  it’s been super cold here lately –  the process of digesting corn helps the chickens stay warm.  It seems like they’re eating more corn and not enough layer food.   I have some oyster shell calcium and am now supplementing them with that to up their calcium intake.

A big problem with thin eggs, in terms of trying to raise chicks from them, is that they aren’t usually very viable.  They are more permeable to bacteria and stuff that aren’t so great for chicks.  I was worried that it may take a while for the eggs to get a little thicker, longer than I wanted to wait to start incubating a batch.

I decided for now to not get an incubator, and instead order some day old chicks.  I ended up ordering 15 chicks, straight run (which means they don’t sex them), and they will come the week of March 2nd.  That’s at least 2 weeks before they would have hatched had we started an incubator tonight.  The place I ordered from, mypetchicken.com, had a cool “Rare Breeds Assortment” which consists of extra chicks from their hatches of rarer breeds.   They have around 30 or so different breeds that may end up in our batch, so it will be a surprise.  They are all good egg laying breeds, and some are even different colored egg layers (blue eggs, dark chocolate eggs, olive eggs).   We will probably end up with some roosters, so we’ll have to figure out what to do with them all eventually, but I think everything will be good.

We are very excited to get our new chicks!

Attempt at chicken fodder

I’ve been reading a lot about fodder systems lately for livestock feed – essentially you have a setup where you sprout a lot of seeds of barley or some other food grain, and it grows mats of grasses for the animals to eat.  There are some big farms that have larger scale fodder systems, and some people have set up diy fodder systems that seem to work well.  I don’t have a lot of space at the moment, but I wanted to see how this would work for my chickens. I started with a large plastic food container, and I also have a seed sprouter (for sprouting alfalfa and bean sprouts) that I figured I’d use.  I bought the sprouter several years ago, and some seeds to sprout, but then never actually grew the sprouts.  So I had a lot of seed to work with.  In the large plastic container I threw some bird seed that our wild birds outside want nothing to do with (they are picky and will only eat black sunflower seed).

My container with birdseed to sprout
My container with birdseed to sprout
Seed sprouter
Seed sprouter

I wasn’t sure if the chickens would really be interested in this – usually they’ll eat anything though, so I figured it was worth a try.  One of the seed trays from the sprouter ended up having large sprouts right away – they weren’t growing in a mat yet, so I dumped them into a little plastic container and just set that on the floor of the chicken house. They went nuts for it.  I’m still growing the large container, it has some sprouts but is not yet a mat of sprouts.  You need to rinse the seeds/sprouts in cold water a couple times daily to keep mold from forming and to keep the sprouts healthy. I don’t have holes in that container, I just swish some water in and slowly dump it out, so I don’t know that it will actually grow into a mat since they swish around so much.   I’m getting a lot of sprouts though, it should be ready in a couple days.

tiny sprouts
tiny sprouts

My other tray from my seed sprouter should be ready pretty quickly too:

These are lentil sprouts
These are lentil sprouts

I’ll have to see if the chickens like the rest of these – if so I’ll try to devise a better system later this spring.  There are tons of diy fodder system ideas on the internet.  The best way would be to have bigger trays with holes for water to drain, and several trays going so that you always have fodder.  If I can get a system going this works for rabbits and other animals too – I’ve seen online where some people feed their goats and cows from sprouted fodder. I’d love to be able to grow most of my animal feed on my own instead of buying bags of feed all the time, or at least be able to cut down on store-bought feed.

A mushroom tour of 2014

I love mushrooms.  We had a plethora of them sprouting up all over our yard and woods this year.   Most of them are probably not edible, but they are beautiful.  My favorite edible wild mushroom is the morel, which sadly did not appear for me anywhere last spring. I looked everywhere.  In early summer we had a few random mushrooms sprout up but in mid to late August we had tons everywhere.  Below are some pictures of the various mushrooms we found this year.

These tiny mushrooms grew on our picnic table in June.
These tiny mushrooms grew on our picnic table in June.
Huge Shaggy Mane growing next to my son's leg.
Huge Shaggy Mane growing next to my son’s leg.
Amanita Muscaria in our woods (I think variety Formosa?)
Amanita Muscaria in our woods (I think variety Formosa?)
I believe these are deadly Amanitas. Growing in our woods.
I believe these are deadly Amanitas. Growing in our woods.
Some cool brown mushrooms on a tree.
Some cool brown mushrooms on a tree.
Tiny orange mushroom
Tiny orange mushroom
Orange Mushrooms
Orange Mushrooms
A pretty little red mushroom.
A pretty little red mushroom.
Yellow Mushrooms
Yellow Mushrooms
A Tall brown mushroom
A Tall brown mushroom
Little mushrooms on a log
Little mushrooms on a log
A purple and white mushroom being eaten by a slug.
A purple and white mushroom being eaten by a slug.
Big curled up mushroom
Big curled up mushroom

Keeping farm logs

A giant sunflower
A giant sunflower (grown in 2013 at a previous house).

It’s a good idea to keep records of things.  With our minifarm, we started keeping logs right from the beginning – I got the idea from my aunt and uncle.  They have a huge garden each year, and they keep records of their harvests of each vegetable they grow.  That way they can compare harvests from year to year.

Since 2014 was our first year here, our garden wasn’t that large yet, but I kept a harvest log.  Each time I’d pick something, say zucchini or cucumbers, I’d keep a tally of how many I got.  For this first year I just tracked individual items – for instance, I got 49 tomatoes, and 132 green beans.  Hopefully this next summer I’ll start tracking pounds or bushels or something – I hope to get a lot more beans this year.

Keeping track of harvests can show you where you had problems – either you need to grow more the next year, or there may be something that didn’t do so well and you can decide if you just need to adjust things, or if it just won’t grow in your garden.  For example, I tried to grow Swiss Chard in pots on my front porch.  We didn’t get much chard – there is some afternoon sun that would hit them, but they needed to be watered all the time.  We get a lot of rain here but the rain couldn’t get to them because of the porch overhang.  So next year, I will grow it in a new garden bed I’m planning.  I also grew a few cabbage plants last year.  We like cabbage on occasion, but it’s not my family’s favorite vegetable anyway.  Which is good because cabbage moths laid eggs all over them.  I was picking off cabbage worms from each plant, and they had devastated a few before I realized what was happening.  I fed the cabbage worms to my lizard and the chickens. They all loved them.  And then the cabbages ended up going to the chickens as well since they were pretty gross.  I won’t be growing cabbage this year.  If I grow any of that family, I’ll need to use row covers to keep the moths off and also move them somewhere else in case there are eggs still in the soil.  I noted all this in my garden log.  That way I don’t forget in a few years and then try to grow cabbage (or brocolli or any other brassica) without a plan.

I keep my farm / garden log in a big 3 ring binder.  I put notes about the plants, and about weather, and about different things I wanted to remember about the season. I noted when we got our first hard frost, and I’ll note when we finally get rid of the snow this year.  When I find good articles about farming or gardening that I want to keep I’ll print them and put them in there.  I also have my 2015 garden planned out in there.  I got some graph paper and used that to plan a new garden bed and also to expand the one I used last year.

Another good thing to keep track of with my chickens is their egg production.  I started keeping track from the first egg they laid on October 19th.  We got 338 eggs in 2014.  Just from my 9 hens, in less than 4 months.  Keeping track of eggs can help you realize where you’re breaking even, or if you are actually making a profit from your eggs.  Even if you don’t sell any, you should make a “profit” against your food costs, by not having to buy them at the store anymore.   With our food costs we still made a small “profit.”  Good thing my family loves eggs.  I also note when the eggs are laid in weird spots, or if we have a broody hen, or once when we had a couple of eggs with thin shells.

Keeping a garden or farm log is a smart idea, and helps you keep track of what worked and what didn’t from year to year.

Peepers the lone chick

My chick Peepers
My chick Peepers

We wanted to get more chickens. My uncle gave me a really old incubator, that I believe was my Grandma’s.  I remember her hatching chicks when I was a very small child, so this thing is very, very old.  We attempted to hatch 11 eggs, and started incubating them at the end of December.  A day later, we realized one of our hens was being broody – she was sitting in a nesting box and wouldn’t come out when we were in there, even for treats.  I found out she was sitting on 2 eggs.

Eggs take about 21 days to hatch.  Around day 15, our incubator stopped working – the temperature should be around 99 to 100 degrees, and it was at 70 degrees. I tried fiddling with it and couldn’t get it to work.  So I candled the eggs to see if there was anything in them, figured out 5 were empty, and took the other 6 eggs and put them under my broody hen.

On the 22nd day since I started the incubation, I went in the morning to feed the chickens and heard peeping under the hen.  I took her out and saw one completely opened shell, but no chick.  I looked around their coop and found a dead chick across the room – I don’t know if it fell out and the other chickens killed it, or if it died because it was cold, or what exactly happened (I know they moved it, because there is no way it would have moved there on its own at that age).  I went back to the nest box and found the peeping sound was coming from an egg that was pipping  – pipping is where the chick is just starting to come out – they’ve made a hole in the egg.  I didn’t want it to hatch and get killed so I didn’t want to leave it under her.  I took that egg, and left the rest in under the hen, since they didn’t show any signs of hatching yet.

I had set up a box for the chicks in my house, and I put that pipping egg in the box under a heat lamp.  I opened the shell a tiny bit more, but figured the chick needs to do it on their own, so I left the egg there. Then I had to leave for work.

That night, I got home and the chick hadn’t made any progress, and I was worried because it looked like the egg was drying to his (her?) body where the heat lamp had dried it.  I helped the chick out of the egg the rest of the way, and started rubbing him to wake him up more.  He peeped a bit and seemed to be alive and healthy, but still needing help. I was worried the heat lamp may not be warm enough, but my body temperature is about what an incubator should be so I just held him the rest of the night in my hand while he fluffed up. He was doing well by the end of the night, and would even drink a little water.

I named him Peepers.  None of the other eggs hatched, and a couple days later I opened them all to see – the two the hen had originally sat on were not fertilized, and all the others either had dead chicks in them or were half developed or just gross old eggs. So Peepers is all alone.  I have a toy chick in his box with him and he seems to like his “friend,” and he’s been growing well.  He’s now 2 weeks old.

Peepers and friend
Peepers and his toy chick friend.

I probably won’t know what sex Peepers is until he’s an adult. I found out a way to see based on length of wing feathers, but you have to look when they are a day old, and that has passed. I heard that at industrial chicken farms they squeeze the chicks to see what sex parts come out (I guess a rooster will have more of a nub or something) but I wouldn’t want to hurt him.  I’m hoping he’s actually a she, because I don’t really need another rooster, but we’ll see what happens.

We still would like more chickens, so we will need to buy a new incubator soon.  For now I just have my little pal Peepers.

Chickens!

These are my chickens from summer 2014
These are my chickens from summer 2014 – curious about the camera.

I currently have 11 chickens.  Last summer we ordered some baby chicks.  I wanted a colorful mix so I got 2 Production Red, 2 white (maybe leghorns or Production White), four Black Australorps, and 2 Barred Rock (they are black and white speckled) hens.  For the roosters I wanted something completely different, so I got a Silver Laced Wyandotte and a Buff Orpington.  The Buff is the orange chicken in the bottom of the picture above.  I lost one of my Barred Rock hens in November, she got sick and died suddenly, and we never really figured out what happened to her.  Luckily nobody else got sick.

We converted a sauna into a chicken coop for them.  We originally made a small 8×8 fence outside for them, but they destroyed the grass in about a week, so I figured they needed more room for foraging.  We currently have a 15×20 fenced enclosure for them.  Right now it’s winter so they haven’t been going outside.  Their coop has a full sized door for us to go through, and also a tiny chicken door.  On days when it’s warmer (above freezing and/or sunny) I open their tiny door for them, but they still won’t venture out in the snow.

chickens outside
Here are my chickens in their fenced enclosure, summer 2014. They weren’t quite full grown yet.

They are a lot of fun to watch.  I have them fenced in because I was worried about them getting eaten by something, or running into the road, which is about 50 yards away. They really don’t like to stray from the others much though; I’ve had a couple of escapees and I usually find them trying to get back into the enclosure. I saw a TV show recently where people had their chickens just hang out in the yard with them free-ranging, and I may try that a bit this next summer.  I thought I could have them come out when I’m outside to herd them up if needed.   We have dogs but they have their own fenced-in yard, so the chickens wouldn’t be in danger from them.  I’ll have to try it and see how they do.

I also want to try to fence a tiny bit of their enclosure in and grow them some lettuce, and then take the fence down for when the lettuce is ready. I may not have to do that if I can let them wander a bit – and the grass may grow back in their enclosure a bit if they are not always in there.

These guys give us a lot of eggs too.  Probably about 5-8 a day, even right now in February. I have a heat lamp on 24/7 in their coop just because I worry about them freezing, and that may be why they are laying so much even during winter.  We got the chicks in the beginning of June and didn’t get eggs until mid October, but they’ve been very prolific since. We love eggs so we’ve been eating most of them, but I have people asking me to sell them eggs, so we are planning on adding a few more hens, just to be able to sell eggs.