Start your engines….

It’s spring again on the homestead. Or, it’s almost spring on the homestead. We’re still getting regular frosts but they’ve been interspersed with beautiful, sunny, 40-6*F days in which I go out and start doing work. Most of February is boring and uneventful… We’ve been folding a lot of seed pots and doing a lot of cleanup, but otherwise not much happens until the end of the month.

Now that we’re getting those few warm and sunny days, the ground can start to be gently worked. Compost can get mixed into beds, chickens begin to lay again, beds can be tilled and mulched to capture the last of the nitrogen from the upcoming snows, cages can be cleaned from their frozen winter layovers. Rabbits can be bred without the fear of cold. Dead weed stalks can be pulled. With the absence of both greenery and snow, lawns can be cleaned of any trash, broken pots, loose bags, small tools etc that were previously covered up, consumed by grass and time or otherwise forgotten about.

We moved a bale of straw out to start rotting for our potato boxes this year (rapid mold growth from lack of previous decomposition was a big problem last year), re-tied the trellises as needed, and plotted out new garden spaces. It’s our hope to dig a rain garden in the back lawn and plant it in such a way that it helps drain water from the rest of our lawn. Despite all of our work, the lawn is frankly lacking in drainage. We are living on former swampland, after all. We’re where the water stops and we have to deal with it. Thirsty plants that need a lot of water in a slight depression in our lawn will have lots of water for a long time. And with their water uptake, storage and filtration, the rest of our lawn might be a little less mucky. We also have plans to put in a more permanent pathway for walking on down the center of the lawn. We’re all sick of our boots sucking into the mud.

For me, all of this happens rapidly. A few days of beautiful sun with no rain, and then back to being bundled up indoors while the ground freezes so hard that it cracks and breaks apart. On these warm days with nothing growing I also allow the chickens to range across the entire lawn. They love the opportunity to eat the bugs out of the garden beds and compost that I till up. When the cold weather and snow sets back in they won’t even want to leave their coop, let alone venture across the entire lawn.

This early spring management is especially important for us this year as last year we had a lot of trouble with some little monsters known as wireworms. They devoured our potato crop and made a small dent in our radishes as well. They’re common in lawns across the US and are the larval stage of the click beetle, a fun little bug enjoyed by children that is fairly harmless but makes a solid snapping sound when threatened, handled, or laid on it’s back. The larvae, however, devour root vegetables at an shocking rate and is a demon to a gardener/farmer like me. My goal is to manage them effectively without pesticides. One way to do that is to till the soil frequently in cold weather as they do not like cold, regularly disturbed dirt. By keeping the soil cool and chilly and mobile, they may migrate out of the beds and into other spaces. We also have a “grub buster” globe filled with beneficial nematodes that might prey on the wireworms as well as the fleas we dealt with over the fall that we fear may return in the spring and the white grubs we sometimes find in our beds. When it warms up and the tilling is no longer beneficial to deter the wireworms, we will spray the nematodes on the beds and across much of the lawn and hope for the best. We don’t have a lot of other spaces in which to plant potatoes.

The rats are also becoming active again with spring. We’ve moved all our feed bags into metal bins, we set out various baits for much of the winter as well, but there’s only so much that can be done to exclude. We’ve never left feed sitting out for the chickens and rabbits either, the rats don’t seem to mess with the compost and we cleared out the majority of their living spaces. Yet there they remain. We are determined to be rid of them.

Fleas, rats and worms. Such is the nitty gritty of farm life.

But at least the sun is absolutely wonderful feeling these days. I will desperately enjoy it until it becomes so hot that I crisp up like a lobster.

Next week it will be cold and snowy and wet again with very little sun to be seen. Then I will be back indoors, starting seeds in pots under lamps in my basement like the grower of illicit goods. Currently I have leeks, basil and thyme sprouted and growing with celery, parsley and oregano planted but not yet germinated. Next it is a massive number of paste tomatoes and several varieties of peppers. Before you know it many of these plants will be going into the ground. Wish me luck!

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Busy Fall Days

It’s not quite fall yet, but it certainly is rapidly approaching this year. While most of the world is on fire, underwater, or burning to a crisp, we have had extremely mild weather. It’s been a downright cold summer, filled with 4X’s our average rainfall for this time of year. Given that we get an average of 45 inches of precipitation a year (nearing rainforest levels of rainfall) that’s a lot of rain. It changes our local micro climate and makes things feel cold.

I am bringing in a basket of vegetables every few days now. Massive multi-pound zucchinis (last year’s record was 7lbs 10oz), baskets of tomatoes and green beans, precious few beautiful peppers and basil flowers all adorn my house, scattered about in large numbers. I really must get to canning them but my canner plate has gone missing. This is the little metal plate that goes on the bottom of the canner that keeps the jars from being directly on the bottom where the metal is in contact with the heat, and therefore keeps the jars from becoming damaged or exploding. Greg will be home monday-tuesday (as that’s his weekend) and will be helping me look for it. I even found all the other parts, and replaced the overpressure plug and sealing ring with parts my father got me for winter holidays. Typically I would have Dan help me look. But this weekend he’s fallen ill with some sort of sore-throat-and-sneezing-disease of one kind or another and has been doing naught but sleeping on my couch all weekend.

We did manage to get maintenance done on the bees and purchase feed. Dan rose up from his near-constant napping to help me stand out in the sun in a swarm of fall-enraged honey bees to see what we could do to fix what was happening wrong. You see, the bees refused to build in their lower box, no matter how much we feed them. We’re in the middle of a HEAVY food glut for bees as the asters and goldenrod are blooming all across the state and they STILL won’t build (though they are bringing in TONS of pollen!) so we decided to do something about it. With some patience, a smoker and sugar water (usually we only need the water) we managed to swap a single frame of honey and brood from the top box to the bottom box. Our hope is that this will not only force them to make a new frame and fill it in the top box, but also, that the presence of a frame in the bottom box will encourage them to build.
Also, on the bee front, is the good news that we have learned to manage our ant population. We had a set of larger black ants attempt repeatedly to move into the quiltbox. Apparently this is a common problem for warre hives. After removing the nest twice and pouring boiling water on the ants and their eggs to kill them we found our solution; Cinnamon. We powdered the whole inside of the quiltbox with the stuff, dropped a cinnamon stick in there for good measure, and powdered around the outside of the hive itself. This was met wit great success. We had a few scout ant for the next week, but after that we haven’t seen an ant colony since. It’s especially hard to get rid of ants that are attacking bees sometimes because the two species are so closely related. It can be like trying to kill mice without killing rats. Luckily the quiltbox is physically separate from the main hive so the cinnamon powder is unlikely to effect the bees, but should deter the ants nicely.

And speaking of rats, our rat problem continues. We have been trying to avoid poison but soon it will be cold and the rats will start to move indoors. This is unacceptable. We also need to get our hay brought in without rats nesting in it. We’re running out of time for more natural solutions like physical traps and dogs. They have also taken their toll on the rabbits. We can no longer have litters in the garage. They will get eaten.

Predation has also been very bad this year. We have had a young raccoon trying to devour everything. And he comes in very early in the night indeed.

But it’s not all bad. We have learned to manage. The garden is booming and we have had two litters of kits this week. Outdoors of course. We also purchased some chicks from TSC. Six St Run orpingtons and 3 pullet plymouth rocks. This is very pleasing as they were on sale and the whole lot only cost us $6. We honestly probably should have picked up more. The hope is to have a few replacement pullets for some older birds in our flock that are ready to move on. Splash and a few of the older buffs have nearly stopped laying, even being given consideration for moulting, so it’s time to move in younger birds for the spring. Rocks and orpingtons are all brown egg layers. As I transition part of my flock into purebred chickens, we will no longer be able to keep chickens that lay blue or green eggs that are not wheaten ameraucanas. So these new chicks fit in nicely.

The are living in a bedroom right now in an 80 gallon long aquarium. It’s been wonderful to just sit and watch them romp about. They’re so inquisitive and active. As I write a few of them are having fussy and fuzzy little fights for dominance. I’ve never raised chicks this close to me before, but concerns about rats drove my decision. Greg has always wanted chicks that would come running up to us, eat from our hands, and generally behave friendly towards us. This will be his chance to get that.

And despite not building in the bottom box, the bees are otherwise doing quite well. They have several frames chock full of brood with a fantastic brood pattern. My hope is that they start to pack away frames of nothing but honey soon also. Young bees build wax, so the frames of brood are exactly what we’d like to see in order to build up the hive frames for honey storage. We will have to take the time to feed them lots, but I believe that if they start to build some wax this month and put away honey that they will make it through the winter.

All around it’s been a difficult and busy season, but we are pulling through. Our homestead is coming back into order. And hopefully will be functioning smoothly again before winter.

Garden Layout (Round 1)

This year I did some serious work planning my garden. Usually I just kinda stick things wherever I feel like they’ll do well, but this year I actually made a full-blown honest to goodness map.

I measured my garden bed yesterday and found out it’s much smaller than I thought. I was spot-on with how deep it is (8′) but I thought it spanned nearly 40′ long. In truth it only hit 28′ when including the emergency addition I put in last year, so I called it 26′. That addition worked out sub-par, producing no eggplants and a handful of robust squashes that it took me several months to discover were buttercup squash… Though through no fault of the garden plot, honestly. They just got crowded out.
(Incidentally, those squashes became my go-to vegetarian holiday dish for Yule this year. I stuff them with a stuffing made out of “wild” mushrooms (usually just a mix of shiitake, button, oyster and portabellas), chopped walnuts, onions and basmati rice, all cooked in vegetable stock, butter and wine, seasoned and topped with parmesan. Conveniently, I could sub out the butter and skip the cheese and make it vegan if I wanted… But I’ve never had a need or reason. Still, it’s nice to know that I could prepare something delicious that meets that criteria if I needed to. I like to be accommodating.)

While Yule tides me through the darkest part of the year, I am always thrilled when my seeds come in. And come in they have! They arrived just this morning, right after I finished making my growing chart!

I had some problems last year with my plants. The biggest problem (besides spacing and varieties grown) was the addition of some pests to my garden. I figured they’d crop up eventually but it still sucks. So now crop rotation, companion planting and integrated pest management come into play.

I referenced these pages on companion planting;

http://www.vegetablegardeninglife.com/companion-planting-charts.html
http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/companion-planting-guide-zmaz81mjzraw
http://www.almanac.com/content/companion-planting-chart-plant-list-10-top-vegetables
http://www.ufseeds.com/Vegetable-Companion-Planting-Chart.html

I try not to use one source only when I do research so I referenced all four.

And then I used these pages for pest prevention;
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pest-repelling_plants
http://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/12-plants-that-repel-unwanted-insects
The wiki list is very good and I generally consider Wiki to be well managed.

And with the additional few feet we want to expand, ultimately, I came up with a yard layout that looks like this;

gardenplan2-2017

I made this in a free open-source art program, similar to photoshop, called GIMP. This shows all the features of the left wall of my lawn, including our trenches for run-off, and the mixed flower bed surrounded by rocks that we’re planning on putting the bees in.

The key is;
Green BB = Beans
pppp = Peas
Pale Green B = broccoli
green LL = lettuce
green SS = spinach
grey H = herbs (various)
yellow D = dill
red RRRR = radish
Yellow C = Corn
Purple P = Purple Beauty bell pepper
Red A = Anahiem
green J = Jalapeno
gold S = acorn squash
pink W = watermelon
red T = tomato (our new tomato variety has smaller plants than last years)
peach O = onion (we’ll be buying onion sets)
dk green/black Z = zucchini
The grid is square feet, and some plants are supposed to grow in the same spots as the corn. Radish is harvested before the corn grows and the squash uses the corn plants as a trellis. Herbs are spread out to help deter bugs on susceptible plants. Dill is separate from herbs because it’s mammoth dill and grows several feet. Clustered letters indicate how many plants we’ll be planting in a specific spot, whereas the big letters show the amount of space those plants are projected to take up. The letters that take up a single space on their own are just that, one plant per square foot.
I would also like to set up 2-4 potato bins for seed potatoes against the fence, between the garden bed and the chicken pen and grow radishes there as well a little later in the year.
Also marked is our shady spot (left) which is shaded by trees in the spring/summer, and unshaded in the winter/early spring, and our ultra-wet spot (bottom) that floods next to the garden bed with 1-3 inches of standing water. East is 1/4 of the way down on the right wall of the bed image.
There’s a few glaringly huge problems with this layout…
1. Crop rotation. It’s hard to do when you only have a few hundred square feet and the same areas of the lawn have the same conditions from year to year. For example, the leftmost garden squares that are shaded. The summer sun scorches us with 90*F+ for a week or two every summer, and that shade is critical to protecting leafy greens, peas and other plants that are easily scorched. Even in spring it can be overwhelming and the ground cracks. On the left, currently it’s marked with “herbs” but last year that’s where we grew kale. Similarly, the leftmost beans are where peas were last year (legumes on legumes). We can’t plant things like peppers or tomatoes in that space because they won’t get enough sun. So plants that have specific requirements for growth like the watermelons, kale, other leafy greens, beans and peas are all in unfortunately similar areas to where they were planted just last year. (And the year before that.) And there’s not much I can do about it.
2. The bottom of the bed is 7′ deep. Now, in theory I can reach in the 3.5′ from each side to weed and harvest… I have long arms and tools. But in reality I suspect that’s too wide for me to manage without stepping on the beds (which as we all know is bad juju). This could be a serious problem, or I could us boards to step on.
3. That’s my working location for the bees… Sunny in the winter, shaded in the summer, protected from rain and wind by trees and a fence line, easy to access but not somewhere I use… But it’s uncomfortably close to the garden beds, and I want to keep the dogs out of it… So I theorized putting a small stick fence around it. It could still be a big problem because bees don’t like things in their flight path. I’m working on that one.
4. Soil erosion at the bottom part of the bed where the standing water is. This has been a consistent problem, yearly, since we moved in. That land needs to be built up with organic materials that can absorb to water and a way for it to drain into the irrigation ditch needs to be considered. Something has to be drastically different soil-wise.
In reality, I might spend much of today retooling this layout. We also may be expanding beyond this point by bringing in manure from local horse farms for free and adding more onto it. But as it stands, this is how I’m growing plants. In addition to this, I have a 4’X4′ bed of everbearing strawberries that overwintered from last year and about a 3’x3′ bed of flowers out front I’ll be trying to plant up a little better this year.
One way or another, in total I will be gardening at least 300 square feet this year, some of which will be vertical (beans and peas on trellises, potatoes in boxes).Not too shabby, but a long way to go still. Hopefully, with a little luck, we’ll be able to expand further than that this year and do a much better job.

Garden Madness

Working on a garden can be very strenuous, but I have been finding it to be extremely rewarding this year. I shifted gears with my garden this year and instead of just sticking plants into the ground and hoping they would work I’ve been trying to focus on growing just a handful of things well. But the resulting time spent researching, frantically working, and tenderly caring for plants has been pushing my limits. So much has been going on that this will be a big post… Hopefully to go with my big garden this year!

In previous years I had some success with Red Russian Kale (which is perfectly suited to our cold climate and will even over-winter our heavy snows) and various squash plants. The squash plants like my lack-luster care so much they grow whether or not I bother to plant them and I often have volunteer acorn squashes popping out of my garden. The biggest problems I have had is powdery mildew and blossom end rot. A bit of research says that if I mulch my plants and give them extra calcium that they will grow into happier, healthier plants and rot less. So kale and squash; plant with some ground egg shells and top off with some wood chips. Check. We’re all good. Beyond that I can practically toss them in the ground and ignore them. I have two leggy zucchini seedlings starting to sprawl in their seedling pots and about a dozen direct-sown kale seedlings starting to pop out of some weedy ground outside. I am feeling pretty confident about caring for these buggers.

Squash1_2016

Next to these lovely zucchini is a watermelon and some corn. I think my corn seed has been rendered sad by age as only two of the dozen seeds I plants germinated. So that will likely be a “stick it in the ground and hope it grows” scenario. I have to pick my battles and learning how to grow corn for two sad plants is not a priority. The watermelon seems to be doing well… But I only planted it because I wanted to see if I could get some fruit and, really, I have lots of garden space available. I did a bit of learning but thus far none of it has stuck. We’ll just have to see on that plant.

Somewhere down the line I had pretty much given up on m pepper plants. But right when I did, two tiny, waxy leaved seedlings popped out of the same cup. They are heirloom bell peppers and in theory maybe I can save a new crop of seeds from these two. The Adam and Eve of my own little local pepper landrace. They have been living under the heat lamp ever since, but haven’t grown much. Fingers crossed I get anything out of them.

Peppers1_2016.png

The plants I have decided to focus on learning to grow extremely well are tomatoes. And so far so good. I had 30 seedlings as of this morning, meaning not only did my 27 seedling survive transplant shock from tiny seed cups into large pots filled with compost and soil… But actually the soil being looser allowed for three MORE tomato seedlings to come up in those same pots.

Tomatoes1_2016

These tomatoes are perhaps a few inches above the soil and growing fast. You can see (in the big pot on the lower right, nest to the lowest plant) two of the tiny seedlings that decided to emerge after transplanting. Now that the seedlings are in larger pots, there’s a daily scramble to keep them in the sun. As I mentioned previously, our house has two south facing windows, which are partially shaded. So every morning it’s a small scramble to move them to my east-facing windows to catch the morning sun, to crowd them in my singular south facing window (as seen above) for mid-day, then shift them to the west-facing bay windows with added artificial light for the evening and over night. To utilize my extremely small space, I have been placing plants both inside and outside of the window. This also hardens them off simultaneously. Despite being hardened off and transplanted at the same time, they’ve been surprisingly resilient and I haven’t lost a single one.

I feel like I can learn to care for more than just one plant at a time, so I am also going to be attempting potatoes in feed bags and strawberries this year. For the potatoes I shall be using some very-sprouted Yukon Gold organic potatoes I have in my cupboard right now and some seed potatoes from a friend. But while I was learning how to tackle this project, I discovered a big problem in my gardening.

My compost sucks.

I have a dozen breeder rabbits, a dozen kits and a dozen chickens at any given time. My grass clippings and leaf litter tend to be allowed to rest and decompose right on my lawn to add mulch and biomass to our sad, clay-heavy soil. You would think that all of this messy bedding would make AMAZING compost. But it doesn’t. It comes out yellow-ish, smelly, wet, clumpy and gross. In the videos of potatoes their compost was crumbly and beautiful. And while the earthworms SWARM in my compost, it’s just not broken down like theirs is.

And I think I know why. Compost relies on a carbon/nitrogen ratio to break down. Too much of either can drastically hinder the process. Most compost piles have a lack of nitrogen, and so trouble shooting for compost piles says to add nitrogen in the form of urine, manure, or greens. But these are compost piles that people make to toss vegetable scraps in from their kitchen or weeds, to put on flower beds. Not compost piles made from various forms of animal waste to feed a massive vegetable garden.

So I ran a quick mental calculation. The bulk of my compost is rabbit bedding. My rabbits bed in hay (including some alfalfa) which has a 20:1 C:N ratio. Which is OK for breaking down into compost, but is a bit nitrogen heavy. No problem on it’s own. Another big chunk of my compost is chicken manure plus shredded newspaper which SHOULD be about a 70:1 ratio… But the newspaper often clumps and doesn’t break down. So I often add leaves, straw, or hay as bedding to break it up and help keep my coop clean. Resulting in a ratio of about 60:1. I have some table scraps, which go in and probably have a ratio of about 20:1, based on what ends up in my compost. Plus there is the occasional dead animal, feathers, dog poop, etc. which probably has a C:N of around 8:1. It comes out to about 40:1 and that makes up about 1/4th of my compost pile. Combined with 3/4ths hay, it should be a perfect ratio of around 25:1.
But the other 3/4ths aren’t JUST hay. Perhaps 1/3rd of that bedding is actually rabbit poop which has a C:N ratio of 15:1. And then there’s the urine. An adult rabbit may drink a single 32oz bottle in a day. A mom with kits may drink as much as 100oz a day. All of that comes out as urine, which is nearly pure nitrogen (0.6:1). There’s probably about 3.5 gallons of urine a day hitting that hay, or about 1 cubic foot every other day. Now some of that runs out of the cages into the drain in my garage. But at the end of the day, the urine completely saturates a good chunk of the bedding as well as the manure, and I’d be willing to bet that the C:N ratio of my discarded rabbit bedding averages somewhere around 10:1, and it makes up 3/4ths of my compost. Meaning that I probably have a C:N ratio of about 17:1, which is nowhere near the 25-30:1 ratio for ideal composting.
Additionally, we get a lot of rain and snow, and my compost pile is in the shade. I don’t have a lot of straw going on so air pockets are hard to create in my compost. It compacts together and breaks down very slowly because it becomes urine-soaked poo mush with bits of half-decomposed hay strewn through it. The earthworms RELISH it. There may literally be a hundred worms per square foot in my compost pile. But it’s not breaking down.

So I decided to prep a tiny batch of compost for potatoes special. I took a big tub, and mixed shredded leaves and some sifted aged wood chips into the compost. I made a small pile in the shade and I will let it rest for a few days and then stir it daily for a week or so before I plant my potatoes in it. It’s my hope that this pile will break down swiftly into the black gold that I need.

So the potatoes will be going into bags with this specially-prepped compost. And the strawberries get their own bed that’s undergone a similar treatment. I spent some time this week double-digging the spot in my lawn upon which once sat my animal tractor. It first housed three different rabbits over winter and then two half-grown hens in the spring and was an awful, gross, smelly mess of poop and rotting feed. A bit of compost, some half-rotted straw and a bit of elbow grease turned it into a good place to plant strawberries.

strawberry2_2016.png

It’s mulched thick with straw over the top while the bed contents break down a bit. I shall probably be moving some of the straw and giving it a good fluff with the pitch fork today or tomorrow to help it along. It’s my hope to get the strawberries living in it, mulched with straw, in about a week.

strawberry1_2016.png

It is about 4×4 feet, in lots of sunlight and so should be a rather expansive home for these six everbearing strawberry plants I picked up a few days ago. It’s my hope that they will spread and run madly throughout the bed and grow into a thick cover. While each of these plants had grown blossoms and berries on them already, my partner picked them all off while I prepped the bed so that they would put more energy towards leaves and roots. I can’t wait to see some runners taking root!

When I go to amend this year’s garden bed with compost, I shall be doing something similar. I will rake all of our yard litter (the lawn clippings and aged leaves) into my garden bed. I may sift some wood chips and add those as well. I have some vermiculite and sand to help break up the clay that I will be adding. Then I will be mixing in lots of almost-finished compost filled with worms. It’s my hope that the ground will respond rapidly to this mixture and finish breaking down the compost fast. After letting it sit for a few days and occasionally fluffing it with a pitchfork I hope to have well-rotted compost and soil that I can feel confident planting seedlings into.

Which leaves me prepping my garden bed for this work in advance. I will be having several people over on Saturday evening to re-dig the bed and mix in amendments. So yesterday Greg and I went out and built a new border for the garden bed. We actually moved the edge of the bed in by about a foot so that I would be able to reach both sides of the bed. I have long arms, but the 4-5 feet that the bed is wide is too much. So with a few garden stakes and a bit of string we marked a new edge for the bed and built a border. We dug the over-flowing soil into the bed, and dug up the old markers. We flattened the dug spot and lay down a barrier of cardboard (to help keep the border out of the soil and suppress weeds), then placed logs and stones along the line, close to the dirt. We then shoveled a small amount of wood chips over the border to help secure the logs and stones and cover the cardboard, as well as to help the border blend in. Mission complete! Border built!

garden1_2016.png

After I took this photo I watered the border in and trampled it a bit to help compress everything into place. It’s my hope that it will stay put while we work the soil throughout the week and into the weekend when we amend it. I have a few friends already lined up to help me haul, dig and transport gross compost, wood chips and dirt. Hopefully this bed will look like black gold in a week’s time, just in time to get my plants in the ground. Wish me luck!

Seed Starting 2016; Tomatoes Edition

Whoa. I went to make this post and noticed that I have been doing this blog and this homesteading thing for 3 and a half years. I have butchered countless rabbits, kept a dozen different breeds of chicken, tried out more plants than I can count… And yet I STILL don’t really have this whole gardening thing down yet. I’m not really sure what I am doing wrong, but I am. This year I have a new strategy.

I am attempting to make ONE plant a major focus of my life. I have collected more mason jars in the past year than I know what to do with, see, and I want to fill them with at least one successful crop of something. Last year I picked up a lot of some 100 dirty and used mason jars, mostly wide-mouth quart size and mostly lacking rings for about $40. Then for Christmas this past year I got a box of six old-fashioned blue mason jars, two dozen pint jars (to go on top of my 2-3 dozen I already have), a ton of lids and rings and some dry-goods caps. So that brings my jar count up to some ridiculous number that I haven’t actually counter around 150. Maybe a dozen or so of those have food in them.

As such, I am seriously focusing on tomatoes this year. Very seriously. I want to fill those jars with tomato paste, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, whole tomatoes, and if I get lucky enough that my other veggies come up, some salsa as well.

My hope is that by growing a LOT of one plant, and by learning intensely about that ONE plant, I will finally get something to grow with serious success. And so I have this massive number of tomato seedlings just starting to come up.

Tomatoes

So the first thing I learned from my previous failures; I am terrible at keeping plants watered, and preventing them from drying out. This little pre-made cheesecake lid keeps all the seedlings watered from below. I just fill this up with an inch of water and walk away for a couple of days. The fact that the seed cups are all so tightly bunched together also helps retain moisture. The natural materials of the seed cups wicks the moisture up to the seeds (like a paper towel with the corner dipped lightly in a pool of water sucks it up into the whole towel), while gravity keeps them from being over watered. I do not water the surfaces, I just pour some water down one of the sides between the seed cups. So far this has been a success. I am using old seeds and don’t expect all of them to sprout.

In previous years I tried multiple different methods for growing seedlings that ended in various forms of disaster. Lamps in the basement where I forgot about them, plastic covered boxes in windowsills that grow mold relentlessly, spaced out containers that dried out, containers that were too big or too small… I have bought potting mix, seed starting mix, sterilized my own compost…. Bleh. So much work that amounted to a fat lot of nothing. I want plants that will live with easy to use methods that work for me. There’s a concept in rabbit raising; get rabbits that are already living and reproducing in the conditions that you want to raise them in. So I want to try to grow plants and start saving seeds that will handle my growing methods. But I also need to understand that just like rabbits can’t eat a diet of nothing but bananas, I have to cater to my plants. And the plants need light, heat, water and air. They need care that they just won’t get in my basement or in a grow box. I need something that’s easy and idiot proof and plants that will grow under those conditions.

This year I decided to hell with if my neighbors think I am growing something sketchy in my windows and set up the plants in my living room, right in my front bay window, with nice bright, hot, lights on them. Since I don’t have enough lights, when I get a lot of sun I just shift them into a window that has light coming into it. The windows in my house are really awkward. My street is approximately north/south, which means the front of my house faces the west (sunset) and the back faces east (sunrise). And my south facing windows face my neighbor’s house right across their driveway (maybe a dozen feet away), which blocks a huge amount of the light. I have a grand total of TWO south facing windows in my whole house, and they are both pretty useless. So in the morning the plants go in my kitchen/dining room windows if there’s a good deal of sun shining… And in the evening they stay in the bay windows. During mid-day, if the stars are aligned just so, I get light in my singular first-floor south-facing widow and they go there (as they are in the first picture).

Unfortunately I did manage to screw up even that. After the seedlings sprouted I put them under a bigger, brighter lamp than my little desk lamp I was putting precariously close to them before. But the lamp put out TOO much heat and managed to crisp 2/3 of the seedlings in a cup to death. I didn’t notice it until I went to take the pictures… Which made it a great time to take photos of my failure in action. Yay? The third seedling in that cup, despite the heat stress, is now bouncing back. Mostly.

lamp

Too close!

lamp2

Just right!

The other downside to this method has been fungi. I used last year’s failed empty pot soil mixed with some organic potting soil that has been sitting outside for a while and I didn’t sterilize any of it. I don’t want to have to bake my dirt in and over at 200*F for 20 minutes or some other nonsense in order to grow plants in it. So I didn’t. And while I’m getting some mushrooms, it’s NOTHING compared to when I was trying the whole plastic grow box method that retained moisture on every surface. So far I have just pinched off the various fungi and removed them. They’ve been sparse at best.

I also have a tray that you can see in the background with some other veggies. Even I know better than to put all my eggs in one basket as it were so I’m still giving the other plants a shot. But I’m not really as invested.

otherseeds

Peppers (hot and bell), zucchini, watermelon, cucumbers and corn are all making an attempt to grace my garden this year… And I tried direct-seeding some “purple” broccoli in my front lawn where I am attempting to grow some flowers in a newly made bed. I have a tiny bit of one zucchini peeping out from one of these pots (third from the left, top row) if you look closely.

I chose watermelon because I really, REALLY would like to get some fruit this year! I will also me attempting to build a small(ish) strawberry bed again this year… Once it’s officially not snowing anymore that is. That could be another couple of weeks since we had snow, oh, yesterdayish? The last bed of strawberries got trampled by dogs. Alas. This one will need better protection.

Fingers crossed I get some delicious produce this year!

To Make An Ecovillage

Ecotopia

Ecotopia; A vision for the Future

Well, that’s the goal anyhow… Actually producing one is another matter entirely.

Let’s start with some clear definitions on this project. I was rather vague about what an ecovillage even is and what the project we’re pursuing is last time I posted so I shall be more up front this time.

An Ecovillage is an intentional community (a group of people with a desire to deliberately come together to support one another as a community under similar belief systems as a society) where the focus is on being sustainable and ecologically responsible. Ours would be a large plot of land, many aces, in northeast Ohio. People could come and build sustainable, community, and tiny houses on our land, grow plants and animals, collect water in rain barrels, hunt for deer, use kilns to fire clay, wander into a shared root cellar and generally homestead. Resources would be shared, from food, to money and cars and decisions would be majority vote or even consensus. Ours would be an egalitarian society, a sort of utopian socialism that puts both communism and capitalism to shame. The sort of society that is praised and lauded and exists in the most egalitarian and democratic places in the world with the lowest poverty rates and highest job satisfaction percentages. Places like Norway and Sweeden which have the highest rates of happiness for their citizens ever seen anywhere. Nobody would ever get rich or become powerful in our village, but nobody would ever go hungry either. Nobody would ever be without a job, a home, or medical care. Nobody would be standing on the shoulders of the poor, rising above… But so too would nobody be those carrying that burden of the rich and powerful.

Utopian idealism? Maybe. But tell that to the Nordic countries who consistently rank highest on objective surveys for the best places in the world to live and work and have children. Tell that to Bernie Sanders, who is now one of the top presidential candidates for THIS country who hold the same idealism, when nobody thought he could win. Tell that to the statistics that show that getting an education is the most affordable in socialist/democratic places like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, New Zealand and France. Tell that to an America that is the third WORST developed country to try to afford an education in. People want that life. And we’re not stupid, we know there will be problems and concerns. They’re things we’re already working through. But we are sick of income gaps and the creeping power of the government. We want something better, something more fulfilling, something that’s more natural and speaks to the heart. Most of all we’re willing to give up gas stations, fast food and HD flat screen TVs with a DVR and Blu Ray to get it.

In reality, many Ecovillages exist world-wide and are already practicing various forms of this utopian idealism. One of the most famous in the US is Dancing Rabbit in Rutledge Missouri. Two hundred and eighty something acres of nothing in the middle of nowhere, deliberately removed from society in the creation of something new. An egalitarian and sustainable commune filled with 50+ college age kids, families and open minded people interested in experimenting for the future. Another is The Farm, one of the largest communities around with a focus on religious and spiritual aspects, wrapped up in a church-like setting akin to a new-age Amish lifestyle. The Amish themselves could be said to like in a sort of ecovillage, and indeed, certainly consist of an intentional community.

Each of these places has some aspect about them we don’t like. Strict religious requirements that lead to a cult-like feeling, a separation from the modern world that leads to questions about openness and a lack of publication or lifestyles that are extremist that could cause a lack of effectiveness and membership. And most importantly? We love our city and our area, our hometown of Cleveland Ohio, one of the most impoverished major cities in the US. And we want to be able to effect the people here most of all.

To that extent I brought together a group of people that may be interested in the project; friends and family, people passionate about gardens and animals, about recycling and social change, about composting and peace. And we talked. And we talked.

And slowly we started to see something take shape. Mission statements were drafted, tossed out, and re-drafted. Technologies were considered. Research on crop yields, on building and agricultural laws, on natural building techniques, on emissions calculations, on natural biocides, on water management, on holistic animal management, on forestry… The list goes on and on and the amount that just I have learned over the past year would not fit into a dozen text books. Numbers were calculated and calculated again, adjustments were made, costs projected…

And thus fell our harsh reality. We just don’t have the immediate start up capital that we want to achieve our current goals. Not that we’re sitting on nothing, and don’t have plans the generate more. But we are pondering the purchase of 40 acres and a mule, here, not 5 acres near a suburb. Because there are nearly 10 of us that want to bring the project together, that want open spaces and forest, that want to garden and raise animals, that want to live in the socially just society we are trying to build, free of sexism and classism and racism, and all the other “isms” that plague our society… We just can’t get a small property, not if we want to truly be a village. Not if we want to open up applications for other people. Not if we want to change the world.

To solve this problem, we’re going to be holding a crowdfunding campaign and separately seeking out other people interested in our idealism who want to help us fund the project in exchange for a place in our society. We have enough to put the down payment on a property. A big one, 50-100 acres of land to house a small village worth of people. The kind of place I can invite my readers or fellow homesteaders to come live with me on, in our own little slice of heaven. We could even break ground THIS year! Imagine for a moment the dream; growing food, living in a home in the woods with a wood burning stove, and having a client base right next door who always wants to buy them from you. Well, that’s what it’s going to be like. That’s what I dream about at night while falling asleep; getting to grow food and feed people and as a result of that work my needs are taken care of. I couldn’t care less if there were green slips of paper involved in the middle of it or not. Who cares? If my needs are met and I am happy, what else matters?

But we do not have the money for the infrastructure to really achieve our goals… Solar panels, cooking oil cars, electric tractors or draft animals, start up herds of anything we want to raise at all… Chickens, goats, cattle, pigs… Plant heirlooms and feed people who live on the land with us. Create community spaces, buildings to serve as places of worship or learning, or to hold meetings in. That’s what we want to do. We want our life to be abundant and flowing and natural and beautiful. Hopefully we can get the ball rolling on funding the project. We’re certainly willing to put our money where our mouth is!

What about you? What do you want out of life? Would you live in an ecovillage? How would you raise the money to fund your dreams?

Bee Garden

So I have been wanting to keep bees for some time. And every time I speak of this to anyone they think I am crazy. Completely nutsy. You see, I am terrified of bees and have been my whole life. But I love honey and so I have been working hard at getting used to bees so I can keep a beehive. Just a small one that I can harvest one pint of honey from each year, more on good years to give as Christmas gifts or some such.

Recently we have these tiny white daisy-like flowers all over these shrubby plants in my back yard. I don’t mow my back yard or weed much because I want to know and lean about all of the native plants that are growing. These little shrubby things, covered in tiny, dime to quarter sized white flowers, are bee heaven. They are always COVERED in dozens of tiny bumble bees and lots of native, wild honey bees as well. And because I like the idea of feeding and encouraging local pollinators, I have had to work right through them, moving chicken tractors, dishing up feed and delivering water as the swarm around me.

The honey bee in this shot is very hard to see, but it was the best picture I could get with my phone.

All in all this has made me feel much more confident of having a hive of my own. And I have been having this issue of what to do with the whole entirety of my front lawn. That’s over 1000 square feet of space I just haven’t been using because of deer, squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, etc. that needs to be mowed every few weeks. Bleh.

So I have decided to plant a bee garden. Over my entire front lawn. The front lawn will be nothing but flowers both beautiful and useful so I will both feed my bees and never have to mow again. I will even be employing clover as a cover crop and native plants so that I won’t have to weed!

The bee garden will be made up of lots of flowers good for bees and butterflies, but many of which may be toxic to other wildlife, such as the local posse of deer that live across the street. In this way the animals SHOULD avoid my lawn in general (seeing as there’s things like delicious daylilies just across the street) and the toxic plants have a chance of protecting the less toxic plants. The result? My front lawn space has a chance of being useful!

My current bee garden list looks like this;

Bearded Iris
Crocus Savitus (Saffron)
Rosemary
Oregano
Sunflowers
Bee Balm
Thyme
Smooth Aster
Shasta Daisy
Goldenrod
Deadnettle
Lonicera caerulea (Blue berried honeysuckle)
Evergreen Azaleas
Goldenseal
Echinachea
Chamomile

Many of these plants have some sort of use on the homestead or are edible. Goldenrod, Deadnettle, Echinachea, chamomile, honeysuckle… All very tasty! Goldenseal is a powerful herbal medicine. Sunflower seeds are an amazing snack for my chickens! Bee balm is a unique spice sometimes used like Oregano. Bearded irises are some of my favorite smelling flowers. My hope is to get some good spices out of my front lawn, some medicinal herbs, some edible seeds, and maybe even some Honeysuckle berries for jams! All the while feeding local bee populations and making my front lawn thick with the sticky sweet smell of flowers.

My bee garden will take some serious tweaking to get flowers blooming in every season all the time, but it will get there! I will work on pairing up plants that do well together and making sure that when one plant dies out, another can take it’s place!

If you have any perennial suggestions of flower, shrubs, bushes or ground cover for my bee garden I’d love to hear them!

In the meantime… It’s time to start finding garden bed edging!