Seedlings and Frosty Mornings

April 14th is our last average frost date for the year and May 1st our last extreme frost date. The weather has been wacky this year and has lead to several problems. I know that many people who farm tree-based commodities are running on panic mode right now. Our weather has been alternating between extremely warm spells (60’s and 70’s day and night) for two weeks and sudden, aggressive frosts, typically accompanied by several inches of snow. Sap season for maple syrup this year started and ended a month early, and we waved goodbye to most of the US peach crop as they bloomed with the heat and died in the frosts. Bees have been having trouble too. A lot of people are noticing the bees getting very active because of the heat, drawing out comb and eating winter stores to do so, and then when a frost hits they can’t reach their food (or don’t have enough left) and die. It’s a rough sort of spring.

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This was the view outside my bay windows last Thursday. The trees had so much snow on them, they were being pulled to the ground. Normally these flowers are well above the windows. Now it’s in the 70’s.

For me, the effects of the weather have also been substantial. My back lawn is essentially a swamp of sorts. The vast majority of northeast Ohio used to be swampland and wetlands before it was colonized by the English, and the effects of that heavy watershed still holds fast to this area. The alternating weather patterns have also been accompanied by alternating precipitation patterns, and when the water hits the ground in this area, it doesn’t leave until it evaporates into the air. There’s nowhere for it to go. This area is where the water is SUPPOSED to drain off to. As a suburb, we’re trying to get it to drain off even further. It’s not easy.

So preparing the expansion for my garden bed has, all around, been going poorly. Not only is there several inches of mud, but on top of that is inches of standing water. I was trenching (double digging) a new area of my lawn for the garden bed expansion, but I’m afraid that all I did was create a small lagoon in my back yard. I really need to rebuild those irrigation ditches this year to help drain water away.

The massive amount of water, sitting on top of the clay slab that I refer to as my lawn, is a large part of the reason why we garden the way we do. We have to amend the soil if we want to grow our staple diet needs. Clay soil floods, roots have trouble penetrating, and nothing seems to grow well in it at all. The water simply pools and sits on top, and we rely on evaporation not waterflow or absorption to lower our water table. So we build raised beds. Do note, the finished raised bed area from last year (lagoon to the fence) has no standing water. It’s still wet, but not flooded. It works.

(Broccoli and lettuce that should be planted outdoors, but it’s been too wet to
work the soil)

Good soil management plays into this a lot. We rely on fresh/arborists woodchips to play a big part in our gardening. The woodchips serve several purposes. First, they help with water management. They will absorb water when it’s wet, release the water when it’s dry, and also create pathways through the soil for water to travel, unlike the clay which simply stops it. Next, they slowly gather and hold in nitrogen, an essential nutrient for growing plants. At first, fresh wood chips are so busy absorbing nitrogen that they will leech it out of the soil, but in later years they shed the nitrogen in a form that is usable by plants in large quantities. To help mitigate the nitrogen loss, we use the wood chips in our chicken yard first, allowing it to mingle with the nigh-nitrogen content of chicken poop and start to break down. The wood chips also add biomass to the soil, not only through their own organic matter, making the soil looser and more fibrous, but also by feeding tons of microbes, insects, fungi and other things that live in the soil and help plants grow. Using the woodchips in the chicken yard also gives us an extra benefit; our chickens do not smell because their poop is neutralized by the carbon in the wood chips. It’s an extremely natural, effective, and usually inexpensive way of managing an integrated agriculture system.

But this year, the service I used to use to get wood chips delivered ($20 delivery plus $1 a yard) changed hands and is no longer offering that service. so I’ve been struggling with other groups instead. I have tried websites like Chipdrop (which was awful), I have been calling local arborist companies, etc. I have heard a lot of promises that I will get wood chips, but no deliveries yet. It’s been VERY difficult and frustrating.

As a result, it’s frankly too wet to work in my lawn to build the rest of the garden bed. Every step means sinking 2″ into the mud, every push on a wheelbarrow sees it creating ruts 6″ deep, and every shovel full of dirt comes with a flood of water. There have been no woodchips to mitigate the problem and make it manageable. So right now, I’m stuck.

I managed to plant nearly all the seedlings I was planning on for the year, and they’re ready to start hardening off. But I have nowhere to put them yet as I have compost to spread and dirt to dig before they can move into soil.

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My seed starting station in my basement, with tons of green plants, some of which can handle the light frosts outside until may, but not the flooding.

So I wait. And wait. And wait. And maybe someday my wood chips will show up. When they do, there will be a massive party at my house, both figuratively and literally as I invite lots of people over to help move some dozen of yards of wood chips and eat one of the meat chickens and some squash that I raised out last year.

But for now, there’s not much I can do. The wet and unstable weather has me unable to traverse my own lawn, and only time will tell if I get my plants in the ground in a reasonable time frame or not.

Meanwhile… Have some pictures of my chickens, being wonderful and enjoying not being penned in (since we have nothing growing).

300.

300 is how many seedlings I will need to start this year to plant my whole garden. That’s a HUGE number compared to my previous years and doesn’t even cover half the seeds that will be going into the ground, since many of them are direct-sow. For me and most of the people I know, this is some epic-levels of gardening going down.

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Ok, I know for some people it’s not that impressive. Most people who do homesteading, hobby farms, farming, etc are planting whole acres. They wield small tractors, horses, or at rolling devices to till and seed. I still do all that by hand. I don’t even have a whole acre to my name, let alone available to plant. But for me, this is a huge step. The kind of step that I am hoping will lead into even larger scale production.

I finally finished the gardening layout. For reals this time. I discussed it with the boys and we agreed that it would be best to just expand the garden beds even further and we came up with the final garden layout below;

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We added a second path, widened the original path (which is currently only 1′ wide and tedious to walk on) and are planning on expanding it to half again it’s current size. (Everything from the second path on will be new.)

We added carrots to the list of vegetables grown, and swapped out some normal onions for green onions. There’s also been some major improvements to the locations of crops grown. The spinach and regular herbs now reside where the kale once did. This helps mix up the crops a little. Kale and spinach, while both similar leafy greens with similar nutritional needs, are in different plant families. (Spinach is an amaranth, kale is a brassica.) This helps deter pests. The kale has been moved far away into the edge of the sun in front of the peas, still surrounded by dill. The dill may get shuffled a bit more into the sun because dill and carrots are not supposed to grow next to each other and they’re a bit close right now. Surprisingly, in my garden, the locations that have mid-day shade are the ones we have the most competition for. Mid-day summer sun and many plants just don’t mix around here. The carrots are taking up residence where the kale usually lives, in rows along the shadiest spot of my garden bed.

We HAVE to use raised beds, or everything floods. Most people are concerned about their raised beds drying out quickly, but we need that additional 6+ inches to lift the plants out of standing water. (Cleveland gets near-rainforest levels of precipitation each year.) We’re going to have some issues anyhow because the path is right in the wettest spot on that half of my lawn, so I have some concern about soil erosion if we get a very wet spring. Because of how massive this garden bed addition is going to be, we’re seeking out more organic matter and dirt to put in that spot. On thursday we’re going out to get bags of composted horse manure, as much as we can fit in the wee little car that Dan drives… It’ll be bagged in black plastic, which from a sustainability standpoint is maybe not so good… But I can reuse those plastic bags on the garden bed this spring to help warm my soil, kill weeds and germinate the 128 pea seeds we plan on growing. Afterwards, standard black garbage bags are recyclable. So we’ll get more than one thing out of that carbon footprint.

We’ll also be placing an order for dirt (leaf humus, sand, topsoil and compost mix) and seeking out some fresh woodchips. The woodchips are a desperately needed long-term addition to help break up the clay. A combination of sand (which I bought a few bags of recently) and wood chips do wonders for our dense, mucky orange clay that’s just 6-8 inches down in most areas. Do note, wood chips do take real amounts of time to break down. Typically I am seeing them break down significantly after 2-3 years if they have plants growing on them, a healthy worm population, and some nitrogen mixed in. Some of the bigger chips still remain, but in general they add a large amount of biomass to the soil that is essential for absorbing water, holding it over time, and draining it during floods. A 4′ high pile of woodchips, removed from my chicken pen floor a few years ago, has broken down into a 1′ pile of dirt at this point that weeds can’t resist growing in. This year, I hope to take the wood chips from my chicken pen floor to trench into the garden beds, then replace them with fresh wood chips to help keep the chicken pen cleaner and healthier.

And maybe, if you have been with us for a very, very long time… You will remember this post, showing where I once tried to grow a root garden bed, very deeply embedded in the shade. It was WAY too much shade, and so the plants never grew. But that dirt is still there, contained, waiting to be tilled up, the bed taken out, and the dirt recycled into the newest parts of my garden bed!

So plans to expand the beds, grow enough vegetables to see our needs met from our own land regularly, and have enough to can, are moving forward! I am excited to make big progress on homesteading this year and improving our over-all sustainability.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!