Tomato Trauma

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I have a son who loves plastic pots with an love that is really obsession.  To him only the pot is real, certainly not what is in the pot.  And so when I found the transplanted tomato seedling dumped out upside down again this morning, I wasn’t actually surprised or even outraged., although I did fume and spit flew from my mouth in a pointless effort to communicate to him: “That tomato needs that pot!! That tomato is USING that pot!  You cannot have that pot right now!!”

This is the second time for this poor seedling, which has had the misfortune to be transplanted into a very nice red pot.  I wish I could know if the trauma it’s endured will make it stronger, in the way that our human bodies develop scar tissue where they heal.

I listened to a radio program on NPR (this winter I think) about the results of testing organic produce to see whether it had more health benefits than commercially grown produce.  The testing found that organic treatment did not increase the vitamin and mineral content of a plant.  The reporter went on to say that what the organic plant did offer was  a greater number of antioxidants, those cancer fighting compounds that everyone in health food talks about.

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Apparently plants raised without sprays to kill pests and fungi for them, have to fight harder to protect themselves.  They have to build up defenses to do that, and when we eat the plant we consume these “defenses”ourselves, strengthening ourselves (it is theorized) against what attacks us.

As I tipped the transplant back over to get these photos (yes, I did. poor plant) I noticed that the newly replanted roots gripped the soil tightly, holding it in place as the pot went over.  You’re not doing that to me again!  I will have to mark this plant and keep track of its progress, to see if this one becomes extra healthy or produces extra fruit…

Maybe we’ve discovered something!

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To read more about my special needs son and his obsessions, check out embracingchaos.net.

Winter Babies

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Past time.

My neighbor Mrs. Q. has had her seeds planted since early February.   Maybe January.  Not that we are competing.

I did get mine in while it was still barely February.  It’s easy to waste time looking backwards, wishing you had already done something, or done it better, so I congratulated myself on overcoming that hang-up and justgettingthoseseedsindirt!!

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But I hate staring at those trays of dark blank soil, watering, waiting, feeling like all is lost.  I actually have pretty good luck with germination, but I go through this every spring anyway.  Like an old-fashioned father, anxiously pacing the hallways outside, removed from the process of birth, wondering when I will get to see the new-born life.  It’s easy to be gloomy too soon.  Some seeds need a loooong germination.  Celery is one of those, but last year after I’d almost given up hope, I wound up with 10+ plants.

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Every year I learn more about being the midwife, rather than the anguished excluded dad in this process.  I have learned that I don’t need a heating pad (although it can help!), just a grow-light and/or sunny window, and patience. I have learned how important regular watering is.  Last year I learned a trick for germination of difficult seeds (like flower seeds) is an old plastic salad or berry box, with the plastic snap down lids, but ventilated too.  Keeps things the right amount moist, but not soggy.

Just 4 days later I feel silly for my gloom as the first seeds sprout.  How exhilarating to see those seedlings fling themselves upward out of the soil!! My kids try to feign enthusiasm as I drag them in to rhapsodize over the flecks of green.  How humbling! and how miraculous! – all that gravity bearing down on such a tiny organism – say a basil seed and sprout – expanding and pushing up through soil particles which are to it like boulders.  And yet the sprout heaves them out of the way and leaps forth, given the right blend of moisture, warmth,  and light.

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Tomato seedlings – often first to show
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Here’s that cilantro and dill after 2 weeks
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Zuchinni takes longer
Basil!
 Basil waiting for transplant to pots

Tonight I watched a show about growing food, big scale.  Farmers brought to court by the American seed engineering corporation Monsanto, farmers encouraged to buy expensive newly developed seed, farmers no longer allowed to save their own seed — meanwhile, America eats on, blissfully ignorant of the struggles and politics involved in bringing their food to table.  And mostly incurious apparently about the quality of the food they wind up with.

It’s a relief to step away from a sense of powerlessness, and turn my attention to the trays and pots of baby sprouts under the grow light.  Those sprouts which, with care and a little luck, will provide a large part of our eating this summer.

I don’t control this miracle; I have no copyright.  I simply rejoice that no one can prevent me from participating in a wonderful ritual of life – the getting of my food.

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Cranky Chickens Love Cabbage

20150125_083501 Remember that back in November I added 5 young hens at the point of lay to my flock of 8 older girls.  It wasn’t too pretty for a while, as the older hens came to accept the new ones.  We had some injuries.  By late January I am pleased to report that everyone was getting along, one group not two, with the hierarchies that chicken social life requires.  Many thanks to my vet Dr. Sarah Chapman, who suggested making visual barriers across the run.  I used cardboard panels and put feed and water in several locations.  Now every bird can eat and drink in peace.

While out at coffee not long ago my friend – call her Sheila – suggested hanging a cabbage by a string for my chickens, to give them something to peck at instead of each other.  She had saved the idea for me on her Pintrest page.  See for yourself — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0DQyRrjewU

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Thank you Sheila for a great reminder – eating gets pretty boring for chickens during the winter, with no grass and few bugs to vary the diet of processed food…

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I happened to have part of a Chinese cabbage in the kitchen.  I tied a stick across the bottom to keep it attached while being pecked…

20150125_084242…and tried hanging it up in various places, looking for the right location and height.

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Hanging the cabbage in a bush didn’t work too well.  I got only quizzical looks “Huh?”

Hanging the cabbage on the fence was the trick.  At first the hens didn’t recognize this pale green blob as food at all.

They ran over to peck at the leaves I stripped off, but walked away from the pinata feast.   And then the AHA moment—

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“Hey! – that’s FOOOD!”  

Since I tried this twice with success, I have come across debate online about cabbage being toxic to chickens.  It is my impression that chickens like most animals will not eat something that isn’t good for them (sheep may be an exception to this rule), unless they are desperate.  Do not allow them to be desperate, and don’t offer any one food to excess.  Offer a wide range of veggie scraps, seeds, and PLENTY of mulchy stuff for them to dig through for entertainment.  Chickens aren’t bright, but if they aren’t bored to death in confinement or hunger for something that isn’t pellet, they should know what’s for dinner.

Christmas Lights For Chickens

We were at December 12th.  Almost the darkest of the year.  Although we had 13 chickens, we were getting only 5 eggs a day.  Shucks.

Then one morning I plugged in the old heat lamp I keep out in the coop, just before getting out there to feed and water the girls.  That night, what do you know, 7 eggs!  But a heat lamp is 250 watts.  That’s a lot of energy to run, especially if you are prone to forgetting to unplug it after an hour as I am. (I keep it in the coop for really cold nights, and for when we have baby chicks.)

I hooked up some chili lights – a string of white Christmas tree lights with the occasional re plastic chili pepper popped over the bulb, looped over a stick inside the top of the house. I plugged it in before releasing the girls into their run and their grub.  And then plugged it in again at dusk, as they were coming in to settle on their roosts.

Wow.  That night 9 eggs!  Now we’re in business!

Now we have eggs to eat and some to sell too, which pays for chicken maintenance.  And if I forget to unplug, it isn’t so bad to run a short string of little lights for too many hours.  Do the girls enjoy the cozy warm glow of festive lights in their coop?  I only know they seem content.

Just don’t leave those lights on all night – chickens, like humans, need their dark time.

 

Dreaming and Clucking

So the garden is shutting down.  Pretty soon we get out the seed catalogs and gear up to start seedlings.  But for the moment it’s not a bad idea to stop and daydream.

Time to feel grateful for chickens, who keep on producing food and eating up kitchen vegetable leftovers right through the winter months.  I can hear them from my studio window, clucking around – and I wonder if I can summon the energy to start a red wiggler worm compost box so they could have worms to eat through the winter…

I could do that.  But it’s not a bad idea to just daydream about the high moments of last summer’s garden, and take a break, instead of starting a new project.  Suburban growers are lucky to be able to take a few months off and exist on the plentiful supply of produce that suburban grocerystores provide, and remember the season’s highlights.

Last summer, we had unbelievable peaches, mostly a gift of the micro climate in my backyard..and the fiesty bulldog puppy chasing squirrels away.  Can it happen again?  Will our peach trees fight their way this year through Maryland humidity?  Will I get that Surround product out and spray it on early, to give the fruit its best chance at survival?

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Our peaches and a MELON!!

In December I can do anything…

So Harvest the Broccoli Already

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Pre-attack-of-the-caterpillars

I wanted it to be bigger.  At least two meals worth.

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December broc

These broc plants have fought back from cabbage worm attack, survived dry spells when neither the weather nor I remembered to moisten the soil, come back from some freezing nights.  They are survivors.  But they aren’t very big.

What I hate about suburban growing is that it seem to be precious – a hobby for dilettantes or wealthy suburbanites who have no need of success.  My goal is to prove that growing plants on a suburban half acre can produce a significant amount of food.

…But with the cold weather forecasted, I figure I’d better take my broccoli now or plan to throw it on the compost pile.

Next time I will water more regularly, so that the plants have every advantage as the sun gives less light each day on my fall garden.  And next spring we can try to get the side shoots that grow up around after you cut off the main head.

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The haul – sigh

Turns out the plentiful leaves are delicious steamed and   buttered.  The leaves can also be used chopped up and added to the dogs’ food and chopped up into the chicken’s morning scraps.

Always more to learn

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Branched buttered broc with leaves

Chickens Paddocks

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Chickens head out into Paddock One

Chicken paddocks is a great idea.  I have mentioned it before, and I am sure I will mention it again.   For years we’ve allowed our chickens half the day in our back yard, for their health, for better eggs, because I am soft hearted — because they seemed to get into it no matter what I did anyway to stop them!…

But we really have had enough.  We wanted our yard back, our lawn back.  Our patio without poops on it, our flower gardens nicely covered in mulch, our straw mulched veggie beds mulched in straw.  Instead of the lawn being covered in straw, the plants bare and broken by searching claws and beaks. An old classmate chatted with me at our last reunion and told me she thought of me every time she let her chickens out in the yard.  And what she thought was “Yuck! how can she stand this??”   Well, she can’t stand it any more.

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“Can I make it over?”

I was already heading in the direction of somehow containing and rotating my girls after reading Harvey Ussery’s recent article (Organic Gardening Magazine, Sept. 2014) about creating debris piles for his Icelandic chickens – “Icies” –  who love to forage in debris.  Ussery is all about sustainability –  helping chickens access fresh natural foods rather than expensive,  likely rancid, processed pellet.  Chickens naturally prefer it.  Then I came across Paul Wheaton’s blog about Chicken Paddocks – and that clinched it.  Paddocks combines all the things we want from and for our chickens.  The point is to create a rotation for them, so they can be in a space with bugs, new actively decomposing debris piles, hopefully grass, and then be moved on to the next fresh one, before they are standing on a bare patch of mud.  No animal wants to stand around all day on mud.  Ok, earthworms. They can’t stay healthy in that setting.

I am not willing to move my chicken coop and run around the yard – ours is permanent, at the center of gardens.  So our paddocks will encircle the run – and maybe we will get more creative in the summer.  For now, they have three.

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Edward and our 16 year old son Oskar, motivated by the idea of no more chickens mucking up the lawn, got right to it and have now fenced off Paddock One attaching tall 2x2s to existing fence and stapling plastic mesh to that.  It’s about 10 feet high so the girls don’t just fly over it (ha-ha see ya sucker!) as they have tended to do.  At least they always come back at night to roost.  Our very patient neighbors are also relieved.  In a month, we’ll send them out into Paddock Two, which is our kitchen garden.  No grass, but they LOVE to dig in the soft soil (any plants that are still active I’ll have wired over).  I am going to cover all the pathways with heavy straw, and they love to kick straw around.  Paddock Three will be the garden beds to the front.  Any of these areas could be subdivided..we’ll see how it goes.

I can’t complete this post without admiring the new roof Edward has put over the run, so the hens will be dry as the winter weather starts in.  Corrugated metal interspersed with corrugated plastic that will let the light through. Last winter I spread layers of plastic sheeting over the top, and that was ok – until melting days, when a hundred tiny holes let all the drips through.  I have a plan to collect that water into a drum, but let’s get it roofed first.  Winter Vortex, we’re ready!!

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Going to search for any birdseed I might have thrown to encourage foraging activity

Mulch…and so on

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Kitchen Garden beds awaiting heavy mulch treatment – note beginnings of in-bed composting in front

Winter is really coming now.  So they say. Tonight they predict a hard freeze for Maryland, so the last potted plants have all come in from the patio and I need to think about heavy mulch if I want to hang onto the lettuce and spinach bed, support the broccoli and cabbage, and keep the carrots…

I can never think of the carrots without digressing into daydreams for the deep bed I plan to build for next year’s carrots.  People can joke about “dancing carrots” (Google it for yourself) but the fact is, if you plant a carrot seed you want to get as much carrot out of it as you can.  Twisted carrots are hard to clean, even if they are cute.  I’m a practical girl – so I’m building a smaller box to set on top of my raised bed to make a deeeep carrot bed.  Or two.  I plan to fill it with sand, leaf pro, our compost and then add some garden soil, hoping that those carrots will grow long, fat, and straight!  (My Maryland soil is prone to be clay – full of nutrition, if the poor little roots can ever break their way through it. We lighten it with compost and sand and lately “leaf pro” which is just composted leaves from the local nursery.  We don’t use peat moss anymore, we go local.)

But back to mulch – I mentioned a few posts back that I was reading Ruth Strout’s old book about mulch.  (How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back, 1965?)  Her philosophy has had a real impact on my thinking.  I am going to try heavy use of mulch, and putting the vegetable waste right into the garden beds with the manure from the chickens and leaf pro under heavy straw.  Ruth writes about using “hay” and I have no idea why.  Hay has a lot of seeds – and straw is readily available.  Since her whole point is to make gardening easy, I will be using straw and leaves and leaf pro. Anyway, she built an incredible soil out of her rocky New England landscape by mulching and mulching in this way, and never removing it – against all garden wisdom to the contrary.

We have always mulched and then removed old straw after a growing season to the compost pile, thinking this was necessary to break cycle of fungus growing there.  Strout says, why do all that work?  Just add more on and let Mother Nature break it all down into lighter and lighter soil. Compost right where you are growing and save the work of turning it and hauling it back.  Keep mulching heavily though, because the nicer your soil is, the more the weeds will love it too.

Sounds really good.  As I age I need to find ways to make gardening easier on my back. But the real selling point was when she wrote about her results with heavy mulching, after her previous decade of very hard work and indifferent yields, that got me.  She describes carrots big enough to feed five people…mmm…I am fired up to try it.

November Herb Roundup

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Trum the bulldog sniffs November’s herbs

Today I picked a lot of herbs hoping to really use the summer’s growth instead of just the fraction I have in the past.  It’s a bright sunny day in early November, and the little I know about herbs is that you should pick them in the morning, and on a dry day.

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Drying lavender

During the summer I picked some herbs and dried them in my old way, hanging bunches upside down out of the sunlight until they were crunchy.  You want to avoid sunlight because it will bleach out color and flavor, but you want to pick a place that has some light and good air movement, so they dry quickly and don’t mold instead.  I tried out drying some in the dehydrator we bought (used from Amazon) for drying fruit.  Herbs done this way were ready much faster of course, and also it was reliable even in humid Maryland summer weather.  Although I enjoy the job of crumpling the dried herbs off their branches and bottling them up, I tend to put it off — and off — so those hanging bunches can get kind of dusty.

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Excaliber Dehydrator full of oregano, rosemary,and thyme

To avoid the avoidance, I stored my dried herb bunches in ziplock bags this season as I went along, planing to 20141111_100007process them when the press of summer gardening demands lightened up.  Today I began to process those bags — WOW what a fragrance! –  rubbing the leaves and branches inside the bag, and then with my fingers, pouring them through a funnel into glass jars.  There they wait to become stews, soups, season baked chicken, etc.  I use a lot of herbs when I cook.  Naturally you want to store the jars of herbs out of sunlight also.

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Lavendar to make dryer sachets

Since herbs grow very easily it makes sense to grow our own, which are fresher and potent beyond belief, organic without trying, and almost free compared to store bought. During the summer I use them in their fresh, and also semi-dried state stealing from the drying bunches — but it sure is handy to have them inside when I need them!  I should never imagine that it will be so Martha Stewart al fresco to run outside and harvest them right when I need to be getting a meal on in a hurry.

So I am glad that writing this blog reminded me to put them in jars for the winter.  Every year I get a little better at taking full advantage of what my suburban gardens can bring to our table.  Every year there is more to bring.

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Ahhh – Renovated Chicken Run

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All Day Roadkill Diner hangs in the chicken run

A thing of beauty is a joy forever – look at that beautiful tidied chip yard! On Saturday I spent most of the day cleaning up the run and house for winter and for the addition of five 16 week old poulets to join our current flock of 8 laying hens.  Eight is just not enough, as it turns out, to keep four “Paleo” eaters in eggs.  Thriteen will be enough to have some to sell too.  If I sell a couple of dozen eggs a week, that will subsidize the cost of organic layer pellet ($30 a bag).  There are many ways to encourage hens to forage and feed themselves too.  I am always trying to figure out how to make “suburban farming” practical and sustainable, a way to bring fresh organically grown food to suburban kitchens, cheaper.

In the photo above right you see my All Day Roadkill Diner bucket, which used to hold a dead racoon I found lying in the middle of route 301.  The idea (from Paul Wheaton’s website video) is that the straw on top will manage the odor, the flies will populate the dead carcass with their eggs as nature dictates, and the subsequent maggots squirm out the holes at the bottom of the pail into the mouths of waiting hens.  Thus voila, a municiple problem becomes a healthy and free food for hens.  Chickens are not vegetarians – their eggs are more wonderful the more they are able to get bugs.  One problem: that straw on top is not really up to the task.  So, depending how much space you have, the Roadkill Diner may not be practical for your suburban backyard…  Next year I hope to grow sunflowers, dry them, and store in a metal can for the chicks to pick apart themselves.  I also plan to plant “gardens” specifically for them in their run areas.

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The divided chicken run and  coop

Chickens who are handled by humans become  quite tame (depending on the breed – I’d like to  see someone tame a flighty Italian Leghorn!).  But chickens are not all that nice to each other,  again depending on  breed.  When introducing  the young group to  the old it is generally painful  to watch.  I have  become tougher after 6 years  of doing this –  eventually the hens decide who’s  what I call the  Bitch Chicken, and who comes  next and next.  We currently have a scapegoat  chicken too –  everyone picks on her, no one will  sleep near  her.  My challenge is to introduce  new chicks to old in a divided run and house, so  Saturday I staples chicken wire (recycled! I knew  that old wire would come in handy!) thru the  center of the house and the length of the run.  If they are side by side long enough, the theory is, they will become accustomed to each other.  I will let you know how that goes.

Our current layers were raised by an adoptive mother, set under a broody hen last spring rather than in a box under a heat lamp.  A broody hen is one whose “mother” switch has flipped on, who sits and sits on infertile (in our case) eggs, in the mothering mode.  The hen adopted baby chicks in trade for the eggs without a problem. (Watch a video to see how to do this – link below)

                          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSRl5I2yZZ0                                                 

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Our Wellsummer with her adopted chicks

And all seemed magical, as she taught  them to scratch and to roost, until one  day she decided they weren’t her babies  any more.  Then she began to treat  them as competition and pick on them.  I guess the chicken “mothering”  hormone shuts off kind of abruptly.  She  also turned out to be kind of unbalanced  herself, and would randomly run across  the yard and jump on another chicken’s  head.  I suspect that she taught these  aggressive behaviors to the chicks.  She  herself was one of a flock of  Wellsummers who were aggressive to  each other, and tended to pick on her.  The best way to break general chicken bitchiness is see it coming, and redirect them – give them compost piles to dig through, weedy gardens to scratch up, leaf piles to break down, dig up some dirt for them to work over instead of each other.  Hens like to have something to do.  But a hen who attacks has to be got rid of – or that cycle of domination and fear just keeps repeating.  Animals and humans both tend to treat others the way they have been treated…  So I will do everything I can to ease the creation of this new flock.

I talked to a farmer about chicken woes last spring, and she suggested hanging old CD discs (PS why not those bird seed balls used to feed wild birds?) to distract them from pecking each other.  Some turkey farmers do this she said.  In commercial poultry farming a common practice to solve the problem of chickens pecking, damaging and killing each other, is “de-beaking.”  The breeder clips the beaks of very young chicks, blunting their ability to do damage to each other.  But only chickens (animals) who are confined to too small a space, without any chicken-like things to do would engage in tissue-damaging levels of pecking. Given some space to spread out in, they would rather hunt bugs in the grass.

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New hen observes the old flock thru the wire fence

Our new five hens are now installed and seem to be getting comfortable in their part of the run.  But yesterday as I watched them settling in, I realized that they are victims of debeaking.  I called my friend at The Feed Store and told her that if I’d  known I was supporting debeaking I wouldn’t have bought them.  Since they are here, I will have a chance to learn how debeaked hens function – and let you know.  But how they look is ugly.  Hopefully they can still enjoy foraging.  I count on my hens to find some of their own food.  And entertainment!

Does the idea of supporting the mutilation of animals bother you?  Then redo your life and budget to accommodate buying organically raised meats.  And try raising your own eggs, from chickens in your own backyard.

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