Heavy lifting

I’m working on getting the garden beds ready for this year’s plantings.  Tonight after work, I wanted to start working on my old garden bed from last year, which is at the back of our house. I’ve been eying it lately, realizing I’d have some work to do to get it ready.   My parents used it for several years, and then we planted in it last year, so the soil is ok, but not wonderful.  I dug it a little bigger last year – it’s now about 25×6′ in most of  the garden – there is a spot that is still grassy that I will tackle in the next few days.  The part closest to the house is very sandy, and as you get further away it’s very clay soil with lots of rocks. I added some amendments last year – newer soil, some leaves, grass clippings, but it will probably take a few years of amending it to get it really nice.

Here's what the back garden bed looked like before we started on it tonight.
Here’s what the back garden bed looked like before we started on it tonight.

It was pretty dry here the last few weeks, so the soil was very compacted.  We got some good rain the last couple of days so I thought tonight would be a good night to try to till it, because it would be softer – I do not have a rototiller that works, so I have to do it by hand.   With my trusty helper (my son Daniel) by my side, we chopped up some of the top layer of soil.   My plan was to pull the weeds that were setting up in there, move the top few inches of soil, and bury some compost into it.  Our compost isn’t fully composted yet, but I have a good mix of old chicken bedding/poop and leaves sitting on the compost pile that I decided to use.

Working in sections, I would move the soil we’d broken up and dump in a wheel barrow full of compost material, and then bury it.  I also tried to move the sand/clay portions of dirt around so it’s more mixed together.  Here is the finished section we did tonight – there’s still quite a bit of work to do since we only had time for about a 6-8 foot section tonight, but it goes pretty fast once you get the dirt broken up.  It’s a lot of shoveling. I think the bed will work nicely though. I have some Kale seedlings that I need to get planted soon.

A section of the back garden that we finished layering compost material into.
A section of the back garden that we finished layering compost material into.

Adventures with seedlings

I’ve been busy getting ready for my summer garden.  I have an elaborate plan for this year, and I’m starting pretty much all of this year’s plants from seed.  I’m working with a staggered-out planting schedule – I started some seeds in early April, and yesterday I planted my Early-May seeds.

I had a lot of success so far with my seedlings from April.  Most things did well, but I did have a couple of things not even sprout.  I started some aster seeds, and none of them sprouted – I’m not sure why, except maybe my seeds were bad.  They were a leftover packet from last year. I’ve usually had great success with asters, they are one of my favorite garden flowers. I love their little colorful puffballs.   I usually start too many seeds on purpose, just because sometimes you get some that don’t sprout – i.e. I planted 6 tomato seeds but really want 4 plants.  My tomatoes are growing well, I planted three different kinds, I ended up with 5 plants of two kinds, and six plants of the other.  Most of the April seedlings are now replanted into pots – they got too big for their original peat pellets.

I only have one spot to start seeds inside, a table in a south-facing window that’s about 5 feet x 2 feet, with a grow light hanging overhead.  I needed that whole space for this new Early May batch. Which meant that I had to figure out what to do with my older seedlings.  I can’t put them outside yet.  But I do have another grow light.  I devised a plan:  To hang the extra grow light underneath the table, and put the older potted seedlings below that.  Here is my new setup:

Here are my under-table seedlings.
Here are my under-table seedlings.

I also have a cat that likes to eat plants – I found this out while potting some of these up – he came up and started chowing down on some.  We have some extra window screens in our bedroom that aren’t in the windows currently, so I used them to block his access:

My setup with the screens in place.
My setup with the screens in place.

In the pictures, the sheets of paper hanging down below the seed trays on the table are my charts of seeds in the trays – otherwise I could end up lost with mystery plants. Some things I would recognize, but I’m trying a lot of new plants this year, so I need a map.

Here is the whole setup:

My seed starting setup.
My seed starting setup.

I have a few small seedlings that are still small enough for their peat pellets, so they are sharing the far left tray with some new seeds – about half the tray is seedlings, half is seeds.

Here are some of my little guys close up:

Tomato pots.
Tomato pots – I have 5 plants in each pot for now – they are small so they can share space.
Comfrey - this is a new plant for me, I'm excited to see how it does.
Comfrey – this is a new plant for me, I’m excited to see how it does.
Black Eyed Susan Thunbergia - a vine with little orange/black flowers.  This is new as well - I had to give it a trellis, and separate them from everyone else - they were trying to climb my tomatoes.
Black Eyed Susan Thunbergia – a vine with little orange & black flowers. This is a new one for me as well – I had to give it a trellis, and separate it from everyone else – they were trying to climb my tomatoes and even the cord for the grow-light.

I love plants, they are a ton of fun to grow.  I just hope that nobody gets too big before I can get them outside – their beds won’t be ready till probably the end of May.  Plus it may be too cold before then – my plan is to get them outside over Memorial day weekend.  We’ll see how the weather is.  I got a mini pop-up greenhouse I can put them in later this month.  I plan to harden them off out in that before actually putting them all in the ground.

Starting Seeds!

It’s that time of year again! Yay!

My "Start in April" seed packets
My “Start in April” seed packets

I planned out my garden a while back, and I’ve been waiting to start planting.  I have a pretty elaborate garden planned for this year, so I have a ton of seeds that I’ll need to start.  I’m hoping to get everything into the ground at the very end of May. Two weeks ago, I figured out what needs to get started when, and separated them out into 4 groups – Start in April, Start in May (beginning), Start in Mid-May, and Direct-Sow.  These are based on how quickly the seeds will germinate/grow large enough for outside. These groups were put into quart size plastic bags, since each group had quite a few seed packets in it.  The day I sorted everything, I realized there were some seeds that needed to be put in the fridge for awhile, which meant they should go into the fridge THAT day.  So that day I started some Comfrey and Datura and some other things.  The cold of the fridge isn’t completely necessary but can help the seeds germinate. Those will come out of the fridge on April 12th and get put into their window spot.

I have a south facing large window that I start seeds in, and I also have a grow light that I used last year, which was a big help and I will use again this year.  I like to start a few more seeds for each kind of plant than I actually want, in case they don’t germinate correctly – it usually works out ok, and if I end up with some extra plants that is fine.  I started 15 things today, 135 seeds total.  I like using the peat pellets, that you “grow” with water and then press the seed into.  They usually work pretty well.  With my extensive garden plan, I figured I need to plant around 700 seeds this year – I ended up ordering 10 seed trays and a box of 1000 peat pellets.  Today I used two full trays and part of a third one – the rest of that third tray will house my refrigerated seeds too, once they are ready to come out of the fridge.

My seed trays.
My seed trays.

The table where the seeds are germinating used to be my cat’s window seat, and this is his first spring with us.  Hopefully he won’t jump up and knock them off – I put things up to block his access for now.

I love seed-starting time.  We still have snow outside but when it’s time to plant seeds it makes me feel like spring is really here.

Updates – Maple, Mushrooms, and Growing Chickens

Our maple syrup making adventure is over for the year – It’s still prime collection season but we were having trouble cooking it all up inside the house.  We have a propane-gas stove, and propane is not cheap.  Plus I just didn’t like leaving it cooking for so long at a time.  Next year I will need to figure out a way to boil it outside, preferably using some kind of wood burning set up.  The collection bags weren’t the best option either, but they did the job. I ended up using large sticks to weigh them down so they wouldn’t get out of place.  My sister Diane, commenting on my last post, told me about our parents using old milk jugs to collect the sap, which I still don’t remember.  I’m older so I don’t know how she remembers these things better than I do.   So next year, instead of using flimsy sap bags, or expensive buckets, I will use old milk jugs.   For a couple weeks of collecting and boiling, we did pretty well in my opinion.  Considering that the sap to syrup ratio is about 40:1, I think we got enough for this year:

My syrup in a quart jar

The Mushroom kits I’ve been growing have done somewhat well – It’s possible we just don’t have the moisture in our kitchen that they needed, but I was expecting a little more at one time.  The oyster mushrooms only gave us a few mushrooms for their first flush.  The pom pom blanc, which were supposed to taste like crab meat, were not as good as I hoped.  The mushroom clump doubled in size since my last post, and I wasn’t really sure when I should harvest them – they started to look like the pictures you see online of them – with some little tendrils (kind of like a lion’s mane) – so I thought that was the right time to pick them.  I cooked it up in a little butter, so as to not drown out the flavor, but I was unimpressed.  The shiitake are doing well, here is the large mushroom that is currently growing:

Our Shiitake mushroom.
Our Shiitake mushroom growing out of its log

There are little baby mushrooms on the right side of the log, and in the picture above, I think the white webby-looking stuff on the bottom may be another cap forming – it has a similar appearance to the cap of the large mushroom, but it hasn’t actually popped out of the log yet, so I can’t really be sure.  I’m very excited to eat the shiitake mushrooms, since I know I like them.  The oyster mushrooms were very good too, we just didn’t get a lot.  I have the oyster and pom pom blanc logs drying for now, and in a month or two I will try to start them again – you are supposed to be able to get a few flushes.

Our six little chicks are growing up.  They have changed a whole lot in their three weeks of life.  I’m really excited to see their coloring change – some have changed in unexpected ways. I’m sure they will change a lot more as they grow up too. I’ll have to wait to see what kind of chickens they are (and what gender they are) until they are almost or fully adults.  Here are their updates, along with pictures of when I first got them, so you can see the difference three weeks makes.

I thought this guy would end up being all white, but he is getting some black in her/his feathers, and also now has a black spot on his beak.
black chick
Here’s our little black chick, starting to get more white in his coloring.
black and white spotted face
This little guy already has a comb, which may mean he’s a rooster. Combs can be deceiving though. He looks like he’s wearing a vest from the front now, and his legs are dark and splotchy – I’m wondering if he’s some kind of Maran (copper maran or other). That is just a wild guess though.
Our little orange chick – now getting some brown in her feathers.
mask face
Little mask face – now has brown/black speckles in her feathers, so I think she/he will be a speckled chicken. But it’s really too early to tell for sure – they may change a lot before adulthood.
fighter fuzzy boots
Here’s the feather booted, strong-will-to-live chick. As you can see the feathers on her legs are getting really fluffy. I really like how they look. Her coloring is really nice too – she’s getting some black in her feathers, and a small comb is forming.

I’m really enjoying watching them grow.  I will be getting the replacements for their fallen brethren around April 20th, so I will have even more chicks to watch grow up at that point.  Some day my spare bedroom will stop being a chicken nursery.  Until then, this is pretty fun.

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!

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.

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.