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Seed starting

Up here in Zone 5 (ish), March is a slog.

It’s not that the weather is terrible, or not just that the weather is terrible, but Illinois March is cruel– you know there’s a springlike day just struggling to get out, but winter Just. Hangs. On.

What’s a gardener to do?

Seed Starting 101
Roughly my presentation
at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show
DIY stage, March 10

Choosing seeds

  • Space—how much space in your seed starting area, how much space in your garden
  • Cost—I never started seeds until about 7 years ago, because I wasn’t growing all that much; once I started expanding my garden nursery starts got too expensive
  • What you’ll eat
  • Something new

Type of seeds:

  • GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) produced by any means of genetic modification, whether by modern genetic engineering or age-old plant breeding methods
  • GE Genetically Engineered—these are your Frankenseeds, and are not commonly encountered in home gardening
  • Hybrid- An “F-1”, or first generation hybrid, is created when a breeder cross-pollinates two pure plant lines to produce a seed with desirable traits (such as disease resistance, uniformity, or color) from both parents; not stable from generation to generation
  • Heirloom, aka open pollinated is a stable hybrid—breeds true from single parent. Generally the plant needs to be stable for 50 years to be considered an “heirloom”

Starting seeds

  • Indoors
  • Winter sowing
  • Direct
  • Reseeding

Materials to start seeds indoors

  • A warm surface or a seed heating mat
  • 12 to 14 hours of light—a sunny window is not enough. Get specifically grow lights, or just get a shop light with one warm fluorescent tube and one cool flurorescent tube, OR get can clamp lights with a 150 or 200 W CFL bulb
  • Sterile containers*
  • Seed starting mix
  • Seeds
  • Water
  • An electric fan

Sterile containers can be purchased seed starting kits, biodegradable pots, standard ceramic pots, plastic 4” starter pots, TP tubes, DIY newpaper pots. But if they aren’t new, you must sterilize them with heat, 10% bleach solution, or rubbing alcohol.

Step by step for indoor starts

  • Make a calendar—you want 4” tall plants on planting day, with at least 4 sets of leaves. Your seed packet should tell you how long from planting to sprouting; assume 3 to 4 times that for plant out date. So a tomato will sprout in about 6 to 8 days; and get to four inches in 3 to 4 weeks. In other words, don’t start tomato seeds indoors before the beginning of April or later, because you can’t plant them until late May.
  • Sterile containers can be purchased seed starting kits, biodegradable pots, standard ceramic pots, plastic 4” starter pots, TP tubes, DIY newpaper pots. But if they aren’t new, you must sterilize them with heat, 10% bleach solution, or rubbing alcohol.
  • Moisten the starter mix (only moisten what you will use today)
  • Slightly underfill your containers
  • MAKE MARKERS BEFORE YOU PLANT. Again, creative reuse, popsicle sticks, plastic plant markers, etc. Use a black sharpie or laundry marker so the writing doesn’t fade or run
  • Lay your seeds on the surface of the cell or planter, then cover with the correct amount of starter mix/soil—the packet will tell you how deeply to plant, but generally you want the seed twice the depth of its largest dimension.
  • Overplant. Assume 80% germination on freshly purchases commercial seeds, 50% if you’ve gotten seeds at a seed swap or by saving them yourself.

Taking care of your seeds

  • Most vegetable seeds will sprout in a week. Some, like beans or radishes, will sprout in a couple of days. Some, like basil, parsley and parsnips, may take a month.
  • Keep them moist but not soaking. Until they sprout you can help keep the soil moist by laying a piece of  plastic wrap over the top of the pot.
  • Water seeds and sprouts from the top, seedlings from the bottom
  • Because no indoor light is the same as sunlight, keep those lights on 14 to 16 hours a day. Use a timer.
  • Once they’ve sprouted, place a fan on low in the room. Doesn’t need to be blowing on them direct, but this will help keep fungal diseases like damping off at bay, and will make the stems stronger.
  • Be ruthless—pinch off weaker seedlings until you have only a few more than you need. Once you plant, donate the ones you don’t need to your local garden club sale or school garden.

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I grew up on the prairie. Our house in central Illinois was literally the last house in town when I lived there, with a cornfield across the street. We walked through it, skated on it, rode through it on combines pulling tassels off every other row. Although my personal mythology maintains that I am from Philadelphia (where I actually only lived for 9 years as a child), in fact I’m a daughter of the corn. The other day some east coast transplant was “charmed” by my midwesternisms.

Blame it on the corn.

Corn is an amazing plant. For one thing, there is no wild corn. It is possibly the most domesticated organism on the planet. Archeologists have identified domesticated corn as old as the oldest identified human settlement in the Americas, but have never found its wild parent.

I first planted corn in my backyard garden 6 years ago for the  Growing Challenge, which is to plant something new every year. (This year it’s celery.) I made the classic corn newbie mistake–having grown up in corn country I naturally planted a row of corn. However, in a small backyard, you can’t plant corn in rows. It won’t pollinate properly.

Enter the Three Sisters, which is corn, beans and squash, planted together. It is a traditional First Nations companion planting technique (planting compatible plants together), using the attributes of each plant to strengthen all three. This is the grandmother of companion planting. Some plants go well together –carrots and onions love everybody; strawberries love borage; and of course the Three Sisters. Just google “companion planting” to find examples.

Some reasons to companion plant: nutrient enrichment, pest control, mechanical. (Um, mechanical?) Back to the Three Sisters: the beans are there because they restore nitrogen to the soil. But the corn and the squash also have “mechanical” purposes– the corn stalks act as bean trellises, and the squash acts as a mulch, keeping the weeds down.

Here’s the How To:

Corn

• Make a mound, about 12 to 15” across. Corn will send out “adventitious” roots, these are roots that crow from the stalk, sideways into the soil, strengthening the plant.
• Plant seeds or starts (corn starts shouldn’t be taller than about 5”) around the ring, about a hand span apart
• When you plant corn in a raised bed or other small area, it needs to be very dense to pollinate properly.
• Corn can be planted anytime from early May to early/mid June. Best are varieties that mature in 85 to 110 days.
• Corn is ripe when the silks are very dark and a little dried-out looking. You can tell corn has been properly pollinated because the silks will turn pale pink, and then gradually a deep mahogany.

Squash

• Plant seeds or starts directly into the center of the mound. I usually plant 3, and then thin them when the plants are about 3 weeks old, to get the strongest plant.
•It’s best to plant out squash after June 10, even seeds, because late May and early June is when the squash vine borer  (SVB)moths lay their eggs.
• In small gardens, you’ll want to train your squash. In large gardens you can let it go crazy.
• Squash will be the last thing to get ripe.
• You can use summer or winter squash. If you do a summer squash make sure it’s a vining one like Patypan, not a bush one like zucchini.

Beans

• Plant pole bean seeds directly when the corn is 8” to 10” high. If you plant your beans too early, it will get taller than the corn very quickly.
• Purple beans, with purple vines, are easier to see on the green corn stalks

Variations:

• If you have SVB then you shouldn’t plant squash for two years. Use bush beans as the third sister.

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I’m always trying find ways to increase the biodiversity in our gardens and to broaden my knowledge of the benefits of of biodiversity, even in the small scale garden. Every year we add a few more native/local plants, especially ones that are beneficial for insects (like milkweed, queen anne’s lace & goldenrod). We also garden without the use of any kind of sprays or dusts, even the organic ones, which still be hard on or kill beneficial insects. Our methods of pest control are limited to luring beneficial insects/birds/animals to our property and companion planting. If our cabbages get decimated by cabbage loopers we try companion planting or we try to lure beneficial birds to the garden. One of the reasons I don’t spray or do anything to limit the insect population of any kind is because I believe the “bad” insects are around for a reason. If we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t have the good ones either, or the birds/animals that rely on them for food.

What got me thinking about this was something I read a long time ago about some trees in one state. This particular type of tree was plagued by web worms (which we have a lot of around here). The state started a spraying program to control the worms, but then they noticed the trees started dying off. After further study they found out that the worms defoliated the trees right at the time the dry season started. The defoliation allowed the trees to lose less water and thus survive the dry season. When they killed off the worms, they inadvertently weakened or killed the trees. We have such a limited view of the natural world, what we often see as a “pest” if often doing a specific job, if we interrupt that natural cycle we often do more damage.

Adhering to these self-imposed rules hasn’t always been easy. We’ve been overrun with earwigs, HUGE wolf spiders, and slugs and I’ve lost crops to insect damage. We have noticed that each and every year we have a greater variety of insects, birds and other creatures in our gardens. Along with all these new species comes a healthier ecosystem. I’ve noticed that we don’t get overrun any more. When the cabbage worms start getting out of hand, the wrens eggs hatch and mama goed to work collecting all those big juicy fat green worms to feed their young. At that moment I’m thankful that I didn’t dust the cabbage or those little wren babies might not have enough to eat. The more I pay attention to these natural cycles the more thankful I am that I read that article so long ago. I love spotting a wasp patroling a broccoli plant in search of a caterpillar or birds flitting around the tomatoes looking for giant hornworms.

My newest attempt to add biodiversity to my gardens is in the way of a small pond. We’ve been wanting to add some water for the insects, frogs, toads, birds and other wildlife. I have small saucers of water I around the garden (change water frequently to avoid breeding mosquitoes), but I have been wanting to add something larger. My parents gave us their old pond when they upgraded to a larger one. We installed it a couple weeks ago and 2 days later we found a few toads in it already. We bought some fish to help with mosquito control and it looks like we’re on the way to even great diversity on our small 1/4 acre lot. I’ve noticed bees and wasps drinking from the pond and the birds love it as well. I’ll keep thinking of new ways to make my little slice of the world a refuge for the insects and animals of all shapes.

Any great tips and ideas on increasing the biodiversity in the garden? Have you noticed a greater abundance and variety of insects, birds, and other wildlife in your gardens?

I can also be found at Chiot’s Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Simple, Green, Frugal, Co-op and you can follow me on Twitter.

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There were quite a few questions asked about details in micro-scale meat production. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll address as many as I can.

Why are broilers “harder” than rabbits? I was talking about processing them, and offered my very subjective evaluation of the two. For me, the difference in the processing ease comes down to a couple of things. 1. Broilers are plucked and rabbits are skinned. Plucking, even with a machine, is a several step process which adds to the time, labor, and equipment needed. Skinning a rabbit requires only a good sharp knife and is very simple. The skin comes off in one piece with only a few cuts needed. 2. Rabbits are easier to clean (eviscerate). The structure and flexibility of the ribcage allows the innards to be more easily and quickly removed. 3. Numbers. We spread our rabbit production out over the course of 9 months and harvest them in small groups. With broilers we tend to do at least 25 at a time. They are all ready at the same time, and you need to get them processed and start a new group. There are some things I find “harder” about rabbits. 1. They have to be cared for year round. Having production animals that produce the young ones requires you to care for them every day. With broilers you only have them for about 8 – 12 weeks and you are done. No long term commitment. 2. It is much easier to get attached to rabbits. A half dozen cute, fuzzy rabbits acquire names and identifiable personalities pretty quickly. The emotional attachment makes harvesting them a bit harder. A pen of 25 rather stupid, identical looking broilers quickly go from cute to annoying. By the time they are ready to be processed, you are ready too.

Rabbit is not Chicken. It really doesn’t taste the same. Some people don’t like it. It is more challenging to find dishes that call for rabbit. For us, the creative challenge is a good thing. We get to explore all kinds of “exotic” foods to find ways of preparing rabbit that we like. That’s part of the fun for us. We do not pretend that we can substitute rabbit for chicken and have it turn out the same.

Health problems. I’ve heard that rabbits can’t eat green grass. Their stomachs are too sensitive. (I do see lots of iron stomached rabbits grazing on the side of the road, on my lawn, and in my garden….) I think that this comes in the transition period. Going from commercial food straight to grass requires an adjustment. In young rabbits, or rabbits with other complications this could be a problem. Introducing them to a new diet slowly to allow their system to change is key. Another potential problem that came up was parasites. There is some risk of parasite exposure with grazing rabbits. Having them on high quality pasture with access to clean water, and properly balanced mineral supplements will help with this problem. It is also important that you educate yourself about the parasites in your area, what the vectors are, what the symptoms are, and a response plan. This will not eliminate the potential, but it should reduce the problems significantly. Coccidiosis was another potential problem that came up. I have grazed various animals on very tight rotations and had no problems. We have healthy, organic soil with very rich biodiversity in the soil. I’ve found that the worms and other soil fauna can and will clean up a paddock in short order. As with parasites, ensuring high quality, properly balanced diet will help a lot on this issue. We are working toward minerally balanced soil, but until we achieve that we supplement. I use free choice kelp meal with all my animals. I can tell when the feed they are getting is deficient in something just by the amount of kelp they eat.

How much meat? My fryer rabbits usually dress out at about 3.5 to 4 lbs. My broilers run about 4 – 5 lbs. My does consistently produce 6 healthy babies. I can easily get 4 litters a year from them. For broilers I usually buy them as day old chicks. The minimum order is 10 (I think…)

I hear a lot of people talk about raising chickens for eggs and meat. I’ve never seen anyone who did it and was happy with the result. Most of the heavy chickens are not great layers, and you wouldn’t want to eat most of the great layers.

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Soil is an extremely important “product”  as you surely know. I don’t care if you have thousands of acres or just one—-you must have good soil to have good health and good products. Not only does it make the vegetables or animals harvested taste better and be better for us it also can reduce or eliminate some work since disease and insect problems will be reduced or eliminated (depending on disease and/or pest of course).

Like most people we have had to work at improving our soil for the entire time we have been on this property. We did not get lucky enough to purchase perfect, organically cared for fluffy top soil. Not one drop of it.

Our property was not in very good shape when we first arrived since the previous owners rented the land to the neighbors for commercial beef and stripped off most of the trees (and top soil) AND strip contoured the ground for erosion control (the type of control now deemed very detrimental to soil and erroneous in the extreme). And though it still has room for improvement after all that hard use, we have been working very diligently at making it better and it shows. One thing that has been a “hitch in our get along” is the cost and convenience of finding some items. We are…and always have been, organic. In my area organic is still “out there” in the farming community and our local (and most not so local) mills carry only chemical versions of all amendments. Bummer.

So…we have had to think outside the box when it comes to improving our pastures beyond normal lime and a few other common amendments found everywhere. It is one thing to spend lots of money on kelp, green sand, bagged natural sources of phosphate and other needed amendments for your vegetable garden but it is much much harder when it comes to acreage. If you have one or two acres maybe it’s not so bad, but when you have more to cover it can be quite pricey at many hundreds of dollars per acre more than even conventional amendments are. Unless, of course, you really are a “hobby farmer”.

Of course each area is different and some organic amendments may be cheaper in your area. Obviously if you live in say… Maine…. kelp will be cheaper, but in my not very organic area and you don’t generally find the items organic gardeners need unless they ship it in (adding freight costs) or it is purchased in small home gardener 5 pound bags.

However, if you are like us and either live in an area with a low organic philosophy or have limited money to spend (or both) you can think outside the box like we have. And no…the ways I will list are not the do all end all of ideas, just some of our better and easier choices. We have tried many many things to improve our soil and not all have shown us results. At least not highly noticeable results. I will not list those since I would like to stick more with something that will absolutely work and not with things that are still theory, or were low yielding, here on our farm.

One thing we tried to improve our soil was to make movable feeders to feed our hay  in every single day to our animals  (For years! And sometimes it was very tedious!!).  Beyond using the feeders we would also at times lay the hay on the ground if the area was clean –as in no manure recently there. We would of course move the spot each day, whether in the feeder or laid on the ground, feeding only enough hay for that day. We moved each not by just over a few feet either….we don’t want health issues of course. We would move the hay over by 40 or so feet eventually coming back and filling in the gaps. * Part of the reason for only feeding a day or two worth in a movable feeder was that we are very very hilly here and often had to move it by hand. 50lbs of hay still not eaten can be quite heavy to haul up a hill in a not so light feeder to move it out of a soggy manure filled spot in the rain*

Now as you wonder why we did this let me explain we had some “pastures” that literally had almost no top soil and grew only the rankest of weeds. To have skipped these spots and never grazed an animal there would have been defeating the ability to ever use them and as mentioned…money was an object on our farm. I would also like everyone to remember a quote that I read at one time. I can not remember it exactly so please excuse my misquote, however it went something like this: “Buying in feed and hay is like buying someone else’s land” (Off subject for a moment you can think of that even to the extent of toilet paper, cereal boxes, cotton clothing and on and on—every bit helps if you make a way to use it) So anyway… keeping that in mind we spread other people’s land all over our pasture….again and again and again. Using their land in the form of hay and feed to build our soil. Through rain and wind and bad and good weather….we spread and spread and spread. We also spread our livestocks manure at the same time since every place we fed them…they would poop and pee right there.

Another thing we did to improve our soil was to condense our animals into groups that more heavily utilize the grass we did have instead of being able to spread out and pick and choose where they would like to eat. You know that type of grazing…that perfect spot all animals go back to over and over to eat until they kill it off. And instead of explaining this concept myself I am going to send you to Throwback at Trapper Creek because she does a fine job explaining it in a recent article here. (She aka Matron of Husbandry also writes for us her at NotDabbling as many of you know).

Beyond reading the article I would like to say if you raise livestock and have never discovered the “magazine” Stockman Grassfarmer….do consider purchasing it. You will learn TONS of good things about grazing livestock (they do not advocate grain usage) soil fertility, improved grazing, livestock handling and all types of things you could not have imagined you needed to know to own animals. Mostly it is about cattle but there are often articles about pigs, chickens, goats and sheep. Even if you own just two goats…and one acre…consider it a subscription. Better yet if your just into healthy food—read Stockman Grassfarmer and understand good ways that people grow healthy food and help spread the ideas around to others. You’d be surprised at what you can learn even from something that doesn’t SEEM like it relates to your life. However…we all eat and so how our food is raised does affect us all.

Lastly (for this article anyway), one thing that has been a problem for us is fertilizing our pastures. Not adding top soil per se..but just plain old nitrogen. We have known we needed nitrogen on our pastures for a while. One sure way to tell even without a soil test is if you can see where your larger livestock have urinated. You know..those roundish looking spots that are slightly, or immensely, more green than the surrounding grasses? We have considered many many ways…some too much work and others really either too expensive or beyond our ability since we don’t own a tractor large enough to do some of the “scut” work. We do live in an area heavy with chicken houses but most houses (beyond the fact that they are NOT organic and feed medicated feed to the birds every day) are contracted out to larger farmers or commercial enterprises before the chicks are even installed in the house. So…no manure for us even if we were willing to overlook some of the chicken house “issues”. And let me tell you….when you get desperate you sometimes will settle for things you might not consider other wise.

We also considered raising our own chickens in movable chicken pens ala The chicken tractor book or Joel Salatin…but we did NOT want to hassle with marketing the chickens. Blah! Too much work!

Recently though a friend of ours…who aspires to some day own his own farm….decided to do a chicken tractor. He successfully raises, butchered and sold almost all of his hundred birds (there were a few losses but it is to be expected) from just his slightly larger than normal size back yard. He’s in the country with very accepting neighbors which is how he got away with this on a smaller yard.

Anyway, after seeing his success, and hearing him lament about space, we said “hey…use our pastures. No charge.”

He feels he is getting the better deal.

We KNOW we are.

Even by chemical fertilizer standards we are getting about a $450 per acre return based on cost in our area.

With two pens installed on our property and those birds pooping out loads of manure and other people’s property (they do have to have food beyond just our grass) we are getting exactly what we needed for no money and no required work on our part. Yeah :-) Oh yeah, we do supply a bit of water—but that is quite low compared to what we could be paying.

You can see a picture of some of the birds below.  Compared to those chicken house birds in the countryside around  us — these happy, healthy, pooping birds that are doing a fabulous job here on my pasture improving my soil and fertilizing it at the same time.  They are enjoying the summer weather and the occasional insect dumb enough to chance going into their cage— really…there’s nothing to compare. I know which one I prefer and appreciate.

So..if your in a bind like we are remember there are lots and lots of ways to improve soil matter and fertility that do not require chemicals or super high costs. Or even a tractor. Yes…it can be a bit of labor but then hey: You didn’t decide to raise livestock or be a farmer because it was a low labor job after all !

Have a great week everyone :-D

chickenschickensupclose

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From city mouse to country mouse

I do not have a background in farming or agriculture. I was raised in Vancouver and until I was in my thirties, I had only been once to a farm–when I was 5 years old. That trip was very influential, and I immediately liked the idea of living on a farm. The biggest impression I recall was seeing the ‘Big Red Barn’ all nicely stacked with hay–it was a 5 year old’s dream to play in the barn with the other kids and feral cats.

When I moved to New Zealand, I was in heaven. I never did own a ‘real’ farm there; you don’t have to. There are plenty of opportunities to live vicariously, and so I did. I volunteered on a few farms and soaked up as much as I could. I did eventually buy some land there and together with my husband, we built a house on three acres outside Palmerston North in the Pohangina Valley. Well, not exactly in the valley but up on a hill overlooking the valley. It was there that I got my first chickens and, later, ducks. Our neighbour, Toni-the-Greek, donated a ‘chicken starter kit’, read three hens and a rooster. The chickens did the rest of the work and happily replicated themselves.

The following year, Toni-the-Greek gave us a Muscovy duck ‘starter kit’ which was less successful than the chickens, and I learned what the term ‘like a sitting duck’ meant. Until that point, we were excited about the duck who had gone broody and was sitting on a nice batch of eggs. I don’t remember how far along into the incubation process she was, but one morning when I went out to check on her all that was left, of what had been until that point an idyllic scene, were her feet. We never did successfully hatch baby ducks there. We sold the property and the buyers wrote the chickens and ducks in to the agreement to purchase!

After this experience, I knew I never wanted to live without my own patch of dirt and flock of chickens.

The big move to Bella Coola:

I moved to Bella Coola, on the west coast of BC 6 years ago (2003), and bought a 4.1 acre property there 3 years ago. It had 2 acres of lawn which took more than three hours on a ride on mower to mow; it was, a friend said, a “two beer lawn.” I wanted to establish a food garden.

Why? I had a longstanding dream to be sovereign in my food. I wanted to either grow, raise, hunt or fish for everything I needed. I was also aware of the hypocrisy of being a meat eater: this, I thought Michael Pollan would conclude, is The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Agrobusiness, with its terrible food and animal treatment practices, was not for me.

My first addition was chickens. I had raised them in New Zealand and knew that there were easy: they provide a good source of protein and (a not insignificant consideration) they provide good entertainment. Thanks to a friend’s incubator, we soon had 22.

Suddenly we needed fencing. I returned from the store with fencing materials and a goat. Soon we had 5 goats. Ducks were donated for our pond, and almost instantly we had a farm. Animal accommodations were the next job, followed by fruit trees: apricot, pear, quince, plum, 2 apples, crabapple, peach, 5 cherry trees, 2 gooseberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, more blueberries, a strawberry patch, huckleberry, saskatoonberry, 4 kiwi fruit.

Once I had my 'Big Red Barn' I felt more like a 'real' farmer!

Once I had my 'Big Red Barn' I felt more like a 'real' farmer!

YEAR ONE (2005)

Having moved in in April, it was all go. With our roto-tiller we turned lawn into garden, around 2000 square feet. We fenced it 6 feet high with old fishing net to leap deer out, and divided it into 3 sections so that the chickens could turn over one area while I planted another. Our property had some well established fruit trees, including 2 cherries, 2 kinds of pears and 2 kinds of apples. A peach tree died in the 2007 winter. It also had 2 high bush cranberries, 3 blueberries, a red grape and a green grape.

We also built my very own big red barn.

YEAR TWO (2006)

More converting of lawn into veggie garden, including a potato patch. We threw in horse manure form down the road, household compost, leaves, hay, and cardboard on top. We enjoyed our own harvest, especially of cauliflower, cabbage (the biggest and best tasting I’d ever experienced), broccoli, zucchini, and blueberries. We made a new berry patch, laid down sawdust paths and made our vege beds permanent: we now had about 3500 square feet under cultivation.

We got 6 broad-breasted turkey chicks from Rochester Hatchery and thoroughly enjoyed raising them; they were polite and curious, and tasted great at Thanksgiving. (My husband brought one out to me via Westjet!) We didn’t have the time to winter them over (the valley requires snow shoveling the paths almost daily), and the ducks were moved into the turkey house.

Veggie garden facing south.

Veggie garden facing south.

YEAR THREE (2007)

In the summer of that year, frustrated at being laid off and wageless, I moved to Regina to a part time job and the prospect of up-skilling. On March 24, 2008 I woke up, looked at my closet for what to wear and thought: “I don’t want to do this any more. My sister enjoys dressing up; I want to be in my gumboots and overalls in my garden. If I continue with my PhD I’ll end up with a good career where I have to dress properly every day!” I was 2 provinces from everything I loved: my garden, my husband, my animals. My life was there. At last I was ready to accept my husband’s offer to support me through his teaching job; this was my chance to indulge myself in the farm. I would attempt food sovereignty—and maybe write a book about it, too. I was apprehensive about this decision, because I didn’t grow up on a family farm and had always thought that this accident of heredity precluded me from being a farmer. But if I could get a PhD, surely that same diligence would help me become a farmer, especially with the resources available to me through neighbour farmers in the valley and the now voluminous resources of the Internet.

YEAR FOUR (2008)

Capital expansions:

This year, we built a new turkey barn, complete with a nursery room to raise hatchlings. On the left hand side will be the home to the 99 chickens as I get the ‘herd’ built up to that number. On the right hand side at the back is the brooder room where I am presently raising 25 turkeys. It is all lined, insulated and cosy warm for the babies and full grown animals.

The new chicken coop complete with feed room and nursery room.

The new chicken coop complete with feed room and nursery room.

We also built a greenhouse. I’m hopeful we’ll actually get some tomatoes and basil this year! We just don’t have the heat units for the tomatoes to be successfully raised outside, and it is simply too wet in general for basil. Of course, a greenhouse will also extend our growing season for greens during the fall.

Year five (2009)

Animal expansions:

I have never managed to be completely self-sufficient in chicken or turkey. In light of the project (and developing way of life), I plan to raise more chickens and turkeys this year than in previous years. I have ordered 50 new day old cornish cross chickens, and have 30 turkeys in the new brooder barn (waiting for the cornish crosses to get butchered so they can move into the real coop!).

This year has been the year of the goat! At the end of hunting season last fall, I looked at the goats and thought, “You’re just small deer. I could shoot you and eat you.” So I borrowed a buck and got two of the three gals pregnant. Together, those two gals doubled my herd! I had five goats (two wethers and three does) and now have five gorgeous kids on the ground.

It was also the year to get rid of the ducks which I did earlier in the year for the following reasons: They are unreliable layers of eggs, not very good mothers, and too cute to kill. Not that the other creatures aren’t also cute, but the ducks take the cake in that department.

I have just ordered a milking machine for the goats and will be venturing into the wide world of goat dairying! This has been my dream since starting on the whole project. I’ve wanted to milk my own goats but needed to wait until I was confident enough to do them in and eat their kids. I’m still not sure I’ll be able to do it; but I’ve got a few more months and another hunting season to muster up the courage again.

What makes a ‘real’ farmer?

It has been a long time for me to get accustomed to the idea that I am farming. I have not considered myself a ‘real’ farmer. For a long time I have wondered what it would take for me to consider myself a ‘real’ farmer. Until recently, I have not really been able to articulate that. I think it will be when I get farm status and actually make the animals pay for themselves. To that end, I have just sent off my application for farm status! I think that getting the status and then the ‘farmer card’ will help me think of myself as a ‘real’ farmer.

I would love to hear from others the answer to this question. What makes a ‘real’ farmer?

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English beer

English beer

(France is a few hours ahead of the US but not 24: sorry, this should have been posted yesterday!)

A month has rolled by and it’s my turn at the desk, feathered quill in hand, ready to blog again about our un-normal lives. Whilst I feel at home here in Brittany, north-west France, I’m also stranger in a strange land and I feel that I will always have that ambiguity as long as I live here, even after another thirty years. In fact, I am becoming a cultural fossil. What do I mean by that? I’ll always remember the England that I left five years ago and not be so aware of how it evolves. Memory is also tricked by that wonderful psychological self-defence, where one increasingly only remembers the good bits and the bad bits often fade to grey. The net effect of these two phenomena can be an excess of nostalgia (not to be confused with neuralgia).

So, what do we miss about “Home”? Breakfast back bacon rashers, cheddar cheese, weekend broadsheet newspapers with all their accompanying supplements and brown English beer, served at room temperature in a pint glass. In French supermarkets can often be found a little section or end of aisle marked with Union Jack flags, stacked with things specifically for British residents or holidaymakers. Things like Jacobs Cream Crackers or Carr’s water biscuits: both of these are for cheese (the French always eat cheese—third of a four course meal—with bread). Marmalade, chutney and piccalilli, the list goes on, how the French see their neighbours. Interestingly, marmalade came to us from Portugal, and chutney and piccalilli both came into the English diet from our Indian colonial past.

So how have we adapted to French habits and tastes? In England, cheese would be eaten after dessert but we follow the French now, more logically finishing with dessert, the sweetness killing the last of one’s appetite … and we eat it with bread, not dry biscuits. French cheeseCharles de Gaulle once asked, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” So, with such a large choice, why do we want another? Habit, taste, and cheddar is very versatile in the kitchen. Not far from us, an Australian woman buys in milk and makes her own, organically certified, cheddar cheese and it’s also now imported and stocked in local supermarkets, so we can cross that one off the list.

I stock up with beer on occasional trips to England and, alleluia ! bottles have also appeared in the aforementioned Johnny Foreigner section of a local supermarket. Cross that one off too. sunday papersWe’ve also got into the habit of asking holidaymakers coming to stay in our gite to bring a Saturday Guardian or Sunday Observer. Which only leaves bacon.

We’ve kept pigs for two years now and have made streaky belly bacon before. Our first pigs were small Kune Kunes (originally from New Zealand) and the loin muscle, which reduces in size as it dries out in the cure, was too small for back bacon. Last year, we had Gloucester Old Spots that killed out at a huge 105 kilos (230 lbs). Just a few weeks ago, we took a portion out of the freezer, removed the loin bones and trimmed off some fat, the put them in the same cure we use for the belly: salt, sugar, black pepper, chopped bay leaves and crushed juniper berries. After a few days, we removed them washed and dried them and then left them in the fridge (in the winter we’d dry them outside) for a few days, before borrowing a slicing machine off a neighbour. The result is very tasty if a touch too salty (we’ll knock of a day or so for the next cure).

So we can enjoy our French lives with our English quirks: long live multiculturalism. If you like, you can read an article I wrote for Country Smallholding Magazine about our first year with pigs. When you click on this link it will open or download (depending how you have your computer configured) as a PDF file.

Our own egg, bacon and sausages

Our own egg, bacon and sausages

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Russian comfrey

Russian comfrey


Comfrey: super-plant or overrated weed? Have you ever wondered why useful plants are usually delicate creatures, yet weeds just thrive, without any care at all, and pondered wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was such a thing as a useful weed? Comfrey is it.
comfrey roots

comfrey roots

A perennial herb, a member of the borage family, its deep tap roots mine the soil of nutrients, filling its leaves with minerals such as the holy trinity of plant food, nitrogen, and phosphorous and potassium, along with calcium and iron. It remains only to harvest it and make a comfrey “tea” (concentrate) to use as a plant food, use it as a mulch and even feed it to animals. Comfrey leaves contain more Nitrogen and Potassium/Potash (K) than farmyard manure or garden compost and more Phosphorus than farmyard manure. They have a low fibre content, so they readily decompose, producing comfrey tea and a relatively low carbon to nitrogen ratio so that they don’t rob the soil of nitrogen as they decompose (when laid on the surface or dug in).

If I plant it, will it spread like a weed? That depends on what variety of comfrey you have. Common comfrey Symphytum officinale, seeds freely and therefore may well become a problem. Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) on the other hand, produces very little viable seed, so conveniently stays where you put it. But it will always stay where you put it, as you’ll never dig it out without breaking off a little bit of root, which will re-grow, so choose the position of your comfrey patch with care. The Bocking 14 cultivar of Russian Comfrey was developed during the 1950s by Lawrence D Hills, founder of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (now called Garden Organic) and is even richer in the useful minerals. The Bocking 4 cultivar was developed to be more suitable as animal fodder but I can’t source any in the UK or France and have only found Richters in Canada selling it.

How do I grow comfrey? Without seed, we propagate it from root cuttings. Simply plant your root cuttings just below the surface, water them in and wait comfrey patch new(you can mulch them with cardboard, as we’ve done here, see photo). One extra tip, use some anti-slug and snail strategies until the plants get up and going, as these gastropods really like comfrey (another of its uses to place cut leaves around plants as a slug barrier, as the slugs will go for the comfrey, in preference). If you’re starting off, I suggest that you buy no more than six plants. You’d be surprised how much leaf material you’ll be able to crop once the plants are established (leave them a year before you start cropping).

They might mine all these nutrients for you but they also appreciate being fed and are greedy for nitrogen when growing; they can cope with fresh (i.e., uncomposted) chicken manure, so we tend to clean our chicken house onto our nearby comfrey patch.

comfrey root cuttings

comfrey root cuttings

You’ll also then be able to propagate further plants by lifting one and divide the roots into offsets and cuttings (see photo: offsets at the top, cuttings below) and then plant these as you did with your original cuttings, and don’t forget to put one bit back in the hole where you lifted the original plant from.

When and how to cut comfrey? Use ordinary hedge trimming shears and chop it off 5cm (2 inches) above the ground.

cutting comfrey

cutting comfrey

Think about wearing gloves as the bristles can irritate your skin. Cut in spring, when the plants are around 60 cm (2 feet) high and before flowering stems develop. Once the plant is well established—I’d give the plant a year to settle in before you start harvesting leaves—cut every time the plant reaches 60 cm (2 feet) high and before flowering stems develop and you should get several cuts a season. At the end of summer, stop cutting, letting the plant grow on and build up its strength to see winter through.

comfrey in dustbin

comfrey in dustbin

How do I make comfrey tea?
Making comfrey tea – liquid concentrate. I think that the video explains all. This photo shows the plastic dustbin full of leaves which reduces to the goo in the video, don’t add water. Dilute to use, 20 water to 1 comfrey juice (by volume) when it’s thick and black or 10:1 if it’s thinner and brown in colour.


Do animals like comfrey? Whether fair or not, the spread of wild comfrey along roadside hedgerows is often attributed to gypsies that fed comfrey leaves to their horses as a tonic. It’s said that Russian comfrey was introduced into Britain specifically as a fodder plant. We’ve got an established comfrey patch. The chickens peck at it en passant, a sort of “Drive-Thru” eatery, and Bunny Lapine scoffs it, so I recently thought I try out our pigs and goats on it. Fellow NotDabbling writer Monica, told me that she planted comfrey some years ago, “but the sheep ate it all before it could get going and I lost it.” So it’s thumbs up from sheep. However, our pigs, who are free range, and so have a wide variety of stuff to snack on, didn’t seem desperately interested and, as for the goat, watch the second video for our scientific taste test and make your own mind up.


Comfrey as medicine? A vernacular English name for comfrey is “knitbone” and medieval herbalists called it “bone set”. It contains a substance called allantoin, which promotes healing in connective tissue. Effective as it is externally, don’t take it internally, as it contains alkaloids, which can cause liver damage in large quantities.

Thanks to the following books for their information: Comfrey for Gardeners published by and available from Garden Organic (Henry Doubleday Research Association); Flora Brittanica by Richard Mabey; The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and other Temperate Climates by Patrick Whitefield and Wikipedia.

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The farmers market in our town started its season the first Saturday in May.  It was a slow beginning, but things picked up nicely the second week.  Going to the market is an important part of our life.  We shop there, getting  local things we don’t produce our selves.  We also sell thing.  Our goal is to some day have our farm completely supporting us.  Being a vendor at the market is a big step toward achieving that goal.  I don’t know if we will ever sell enough at the market to have that be our only outlet, but being there connects us with the wider community and has helped us build customers who also come to the farm for things.

Last week at the market I was chatting with a customer and he asked about our farm.  “Was it a real farm?”  I described our place and what we do, 5 acres, goats, chickens, vegetables, etc.  He laughed and said “Oh, a hobby farm!”, then walked away.  That got my dander up a bit.  Later in the day I had the chance to talk with a “real” farmer.  They grow corn, soy beans, and hay on about 1000 acres.  He was worried because his wife’s job is a bit tenuous right now, and without it they couldn’t make it.  The price of corn has dropped and he is just covering expenses.  He said that he will probably only make a profit of $1.00 an acre this year.  That really got me thinking.  Last year was a pretty dismal year for us.  We only made it to market about half the time, and the egg production crashed over the winter.  But even with all of that we ended up with a net profit of about $250.00 per acre.  We also provided all of our eggs, most of our milk and milk products, more than half of the vegetables and fresh produce, and some of the meat for our family.  This year we should do considerably better than that.  So, who’s the hobby farmer?

 

We are not quite making a living from the farm, but it will be close this year.  If CC lost her job for some reason we could still pay the basic bills from farm income.  Insurance would be a worry, and we would discontinue some less important services (like cable and possibly our land line).  In the winter we may need to do some odd job things to supplement, but we could continue to live pretty much as we do now.  That makes tiny farms a viable option as we go forward.  There are some barriers to success.  There is very little equipment available that is scaled to this size farm.  There is no support from the government, researchers, banks, etc (that could be a good thing too.) Many of the current and pending farm and food related regulations don’t take tiny farms into account at all.  There are differences in what is done and how it is done and regulations aimed at large production models don’t fit the small farm. (I promised I would not dabble in politics here.  If you want more on that topic you can see my blog under the Food Safety Regulation topic.) Another barrier is attitude.  People don’t believe in small scale production.  Our model of civilization is built on the idea of growth.  You aren’t successful if your business isn’t bigger this year than it was last year.  Small farms have limits and don’t fit that way of doing business.  That is a really hard thing to overcome.

 

So, what do you think?  Are small (tiny) farms viable as a way of making a living as well as a way of having a life?

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Dove, love…

One holiday season as a single parent, I lacked money and only had enough for one “nice” gift for my daughter.  After some thought about what sort of present might be enjoyed throughout the year, that year I put up a bird feeding station, complete with mesh walkabout tray lower down the pole for the groundfeeder-sort of birds…all this set up right outside the picture window just by our kitchen/dining table.  I’d seen a lot of birds there passing by, and when we put food out, it attracted a lot of lovely “regulars,” especially doves.  Their tray was situated right about eye level for us when seated at the table inside, and it was so beautiful having so much winged life only a couple feet away.

This became a favorite place for my daughter and me to get up close and personal with our feathered friends…she’s loved birds ever since.

I especially loved the doves, and their nightly cooing.  Wild doves will always be a favorite part of my gardens.

Birds have always been a part of my life in some way.  Though I’ve had caged birds before…parakeet, cockatiel (briefly), canaries, finches, I prefer seeing them be able to fly or roam freely.

I think a lot about raising some chickens.  And some guineas, and a pair of peafowl, some ducks, maybe a pair of geese…?  The list fluctuates, but figures in largely to our Next Phase of homesteading beyond this one.  Most of those are nixed from this locale due to zoning regulations, though if we’re here long enough, we’ll likely take those regulations head-on, or “interpret them loosely.”  (Goodbye chicken…hello “Florida Ground Parrot”…ha!)

Part of my love of birds may be genetic.  My maternal Grandpa loved birds.  Some of my best memories (from guess where?) spent at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house were sitting with them during breaks or at the end of the day on the back porch, watching the birds go about their business.  There were mockingbirds, blue jays, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, varieties of woodpeckers, thrashers, all the varieties of sparrows and small songbirds, cardinals, bluebirds, robins, and the hummingbirds that came to sip from the heavy trumpet vines that engulfed the T-post at the near end of the clothesline.  Their songs were recognizable, too, and even if you couldn’t see them, you often knew they were there…the bobwhites, mourning doves, meadowlarks, redwinged blackbirds, crows, whippoorwills.

For some, birdwatching is a pleasant diversion, and for others,  a passionate obsession.  For my Grandpa, it was a part of his rural world (the one he chose after retirement), and he “knew” each bird whose territory he shared, and enjoyed their daily antics and personalities.  My grandparents seldom fed the birds.  They provided for them in different ways.  They would never disturb a nest, not even an abandoned one, and left different types of trees and shrubs intact because they knew which birds would be returning to rear their families there…and planted others they knew would be cover for bird feasts and fortresses.

Sitting there as a young girl with my Grandpa, swinging my bare feet back and forth from my perch on the hollow metal folding lawn chair, the plastic webbing crosshatching its design against the backs of my thighs, we were content without much conversation.  Grandpa never was much of a talker, but loved having us girls around and just being.  We spent a lot of time sitting on that back porch at dusk, in those flimsy lawn chairs.  It was there he taught me not to shy away from the dirt daubers (that look a lot like wasps, and that we pronounced “dirt-dobblers”) or granddaddy longlegs spiders.  And it was there I once asked him to tell me about his own father.

It turns out my great-grandpa was an interesting man, and one of the things he mentioned about him was that Great-Grandpa Wright kept pigeons.

Kept pigeons?  My interest was piqued.  Tell me more, Grandpa…

He spoke of his father with much tenderness and respect, and the details of the pigeon-raising are lost to me now, though I did listen intently.  It turns out he raised a lot of them.  I thought that was the coolest thing I’d heard…both my grandparents were beyond their animal-husbandry days and had downsized along the most simplistic lines, which I thought was a total waste of good land and B-O-R-I-N-G as a child.  They had once done some dairying (by hand) in bygone days, including working the fields and gardens with mules, and had chopped cotton for years in their own childhoods.  Obviously they had no nostalgia for those particulars left to extend into my own childhood.  Finding out that someone in my family had raised any sort of animal was sort an affirmation of my own interests.

It wasn’t until a year or so ago that I thought much about my forbear’s pigeon-raising, till I had a conversation with Jack about his mom and his childhood years in Havana.  It seems that despite her busy schedule as a nurse, his mother kept a lot of plants in the walled sideyard of their concrete-and-stucco home, but in addition to that, she kept birds.  I was trying to figure out what sort of birds they were, since Jack knew them as “palomas.”  He said she kept anywhere from 3 to 15 at any given time, and would use them as a meat bird in soup, especially when anyone would get sick with a cold.  They would sometimes lay eggs that would hatch, fledge, and become adults.  They were quiet, mostly white but sometimes bicolored, lovely, and had a soft song.

Sopa de Paloma is what he called the soup, and said a lot of people kept palomas in their backyards in Cuba to supplement their meals.  The soup would be made like a standard chicken soup of that area, simmering the carcass and meat with salt, garlic, onion, celery, spices, starchy vegetables like potatoes or malangas, sweet potato, calabaza/pumpkin, yuca, and green plantains.  He still swears this soup is more healing that most medicines :)

It turns out Palomas are pigeons, and his mom kept them in a long, divided rectangular cage raised off the ground about table-height.  They were shaded by the wall and the trees.  The droppings would fall through the wire bottom to the plants below, and there were nesting boxes within.  Everything worked simply and symbiotically, and was efficiently situated…permaculture before it was a term.  Each day when she was home, she would open the door and they’d free range around the walled yard among her plants till she put them back into the cage at the end of the day…she’d trimmed the flight feathers of one wing for each bird.

I asked Jack whether he was sure they were pigeons, or doves, since their description sounded more to me like doves, and this led us both to go online to try to determine what the difference between a pigeon and a dove might be.  It turns out they are basically different sizes of the same bird…the doves are the smaller sort and the pigeons are the larger.  That’s the short and dirty explanation, though I’m sure experts can go into better detail.  Their names in other countries are interchangeable, and they belong to the same “family.”

I’ve been pretty amazed at how Jack’s mom managed to grow so much for herself right in her own backyard, and doves/pigeons are no exception.  Jack and I began asking ourselves if this bird could be the exception to the “agricultural animal” umbrella term in our zoning exclusions, and if we might have some “pet” pigeons/doves for our own culinary use.

If we would be raising our own ducks, chickens, geese, why not our own dove/pigeons?

Well, it’s not a popular food these days, but that can’t be said for every area of the world, nor every era.  Most people think of pigeons being nasty city-dwelling disease-carriers, and if you’ve seen city pigeons, they do seem to “be what they eat.”  But perhaps therein lies the assumption that they’re unfit…clearly animals raised in natural ways or those in the wild are nutritionally and healthwise superior.  Can our tastes adjust to the “peasant foods” of our more rural ancestors, even to the degree where we’ll eat pigeon?  As we look for affordable options for the livestock portion of the homestead, could these be among other humble foods considered the poor man’s feast?  Pigeon, to me, sounds a lot more appealing than the proverbial “four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie.”

Ask dove hunters..there’s not much more than a mouthful to be garnered from the cooked end product, but that doesn’t stop hunters every year from bringing them home and thoroughly enjoying them.  A pigeon is a bigger version of dove.  The meat is said to be dark and flavorful, and to some tastes this means ” gamey.”  This is often minimized by marinating, wrapping with a bacon or substitute bacon product, and grilling or cooking just till done.

Jack said in Cuba, homegrown pigeons are fed grains and allowed to free-range in vegetation, and housed in simple cages such as his mom’s.  He believes they were used for making rich soupstocks, utilized whole-carcass, meat and all. 

In some places in the world (including some places in the U.S.), young pigeons are harvested after having grown in all their feathers a few days before they’re able to fly, about day 25-30, and are considered a delicacy…squab.  At that stage they have only been fed crop-milk from their parents, and have not eaten independently.

I’m not advocating for or against raising pigeons and doves, but we certainly will be investigating this as a supplemental food source for ourselves, especially since Jack and I both seem to come from lineages that utilized these birds in former days.   We may very well decide to keep some and see how they do…Cuba’s a semi-tropical climate, as is ours, so I imagine they’d do fine here. 

I did find some recipes online for dove and pigeon, several of which sounded delicious…pigeon soup, pigeon pie, grilled, casseroled.  It appears to be a food that is considered a hearty “peasant food” in many cultures worldwide.

Inexpensive, easy to raise, beautiful to watch, and musical to listen to…

an asset to the backyard homesteader and larger rural farm alike? 

It’s a thought…

The only problem might be how to resist making every one of them a pet instead of dinner :)

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