End of a season; Garden notes from 2017

The growing season is coming to an unseasonable close this year. The pepper plants, inherently loving of warm weather, hung on well into the start of November before our first true freeze wiped them out. The colder-hardy crops continue to grow and thrive. The lettuce which died back in the summer and never quite grew is flourishing. The remaining carrots which grew poorly, the parsley, the kale, the green onions and even the radishes are all quite content in their nearly winter gardens, green and perky. Some of them I may allow to over-winter, but the garden design for next year may not allow it.

Though things are technically still growing I am trying to finish up the growing season. It’s not going well. The days are warm and sunny frequently enough that even the bees are coming out of their hive and collecting pollen a few days a week. I would say that from my childhood it was a 50-50 chance of snow on Halloween and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around we’d have probably had multiple feet. Who knows what normal looks like now. I will likely consider a sturdy hoop cover for next fall to see if I can grow some plants clear through the winter.

Finishing up the growing season means more than just getting your garden beds in order for the winter, old plants removed, fed with compost that’s right on the cusp of being ready, mulched or cover-cropped, etc. It also means taking the observations jotted down and filed away in memory banks and text files from the year and compiling them into something useful for growing in the future. So this post is that compilation for my garden beds, edited and clarified deeply. I hope the lessons I learned this year can prove useful to other people who read this in the future.

2017 Weather and Garden Bed Changes

A general note about the environment my plants were raised in. We’re in USDA zone 6a, though that can vary by one zone if you go a dozen miles in any direction. This year had unusually high rainfall during the summer (nearly twice normal rainfall between may and September). It felt cold but temperatures were fairly normal (slightly above historical averages). The beds got built late and seedlings went into the ground late (mid may).

The garden beds themselves were shifted this year to allow for two large beds, one half bed, and a pair of potato boxes. The front-most bed was brand new this year and the soil was rough and unfinished. The potato boxes were also brand new. (See: This post from last winter showing my garden bed layout for this year and where things were planted, roughly.)

And now into

Plants and their 2017 Notes (in no particular order)

Potatoes

We grew two varieties of potatoes this year; Red Norland and Yukon Golds. Both did sub-par and did not meet expectations due to various factors. The beds they were planted in were brand new 4x4ft beds adjacent to one another and were designed to be vertical potato boxes. They had 1″ mesh plastic green deer fencing around them to hold the dirt in. They were grown by layering hay, compost and dirt vertically for about 2-3′. The Yukon golds had large, robust vines that held up well to the vertical planting style. The red Norland vines rotted away at the base more than the golds, though it was a problem in both varieties. The hypothesis is that the hay matted, molded and rotted more than straw would have with it’s more thorough exchange of air.
Both varieties also suffered from wireworms. The wireworms did significantly more damage to the Yukon Golds, devouring huge amounts of almost every potato. Only a few were uneaten, most were eaten beyond human consumption. The red Norlands had incidental wireworm holes inside but very few potatoes were damaged beyond human consumption. The red Norlands also suffered from minor scabbing from fungus but were generally healthy, robust and crisp potatoes. Though they produced fewer, smaller, potatoes overall, more potatoes were whole and edible. The red Norlands proved they could withstand a heavy wireworm infestation and were firm and delicious. The scabbing seemed to have little effect on the crop. The yellows were soft and mild, the reds were extremely crisp, firmer than a fresh apple and had a strong, almost sharp (for a potato) flavor. Over-all the potatoes produced far less than I expected, but I think the reds will be worth trying again, and replacing hay with straw will improve plant quality.

Onions (bulb)

I can’t recall the variety we grew but we got sets of medium yellow onions from Home Depot. The soil they were planted in was rough and they grew surprisingly well despite that. But they needed MUCH deeper mulching (by about 6″). The stalks fell over and died back very early, long before the roots were done growing. This is our third time growing onions and none have been highly successful. Given how inexpensive onions are to buy and difficult to grow, we will be taking a break from them in 2018 to focus on other plants.

Onions (Green)

I believe we grew Tokyo Long White green onions. They grew extremely well in large bunches and HUGE  plants. They only needed to be spaced further apart and harvested more often. We will be growing these again. They are still alive in our garden right now. A single leaf would frequently grow 1-2 feet tall and 2-3 inches wide.

Wild Garlic

This year we cut back the scapes and harvested bulbs which went very well! Next fall we plan on introducing other heirloom hardneck varieties to our garlic beds.

French Breakfast Radish

These grew extremely well. They were very prolific, and grew into huge radishes. Given the space they would grow to the size of carrots with a 1-2″ diameter and several inches long. They started to loose flavor during flowering, which happened as they aged in the heat. They grew insanely fast, and almost all the seeds sprouted. They were edible within a month and lasted in the ground even through light frosts, growing huge as long as it stayed cold. Wireworms and other insects consumed some of them but there were so many it didn’t matter. They did need more mulch and to be hilled/mulch more dramatically. They grow extremely well inbetween other plants and shade out weeds effectively. They were a huge success and will become a staple vegetable for us now.

Peppers

We grew three varieties of peppers this year; NuMex Joe Anaheims, Early Jalapenos and Black Beauty Bell peppers. They were planted close together in new, rough, soil and all three had similar problems and results. The pepper plants all suffered extreme damage from groundhogs early in the season, having all leaves eaten off repeatedly and stems chewed down until they were just sticks in the ground. Surprisingly, all the varieties recovered from this damage and grew back, but they were stunted and small as a result, only growing about 1′ tall. (The groundhogs suffered dearly for their transgressions at the paws of my husky.)  The Anaheims recovered first, putting out lots of big, long peppers. I should have let them ripen longer as they were quite mild and green. The bells recovered next. These peppers start out surprisingly small and dark, absolutely black. As they reach proper eating size they begin to become more like a purple or brown than an inky black. I didn’t realize this and I was picking most of them too early as well, but they were prolific as a result. The Jalapenos were the surprising under performers this year, recovering last and producing little. Normally they do much better. Because we were able to use most of the peppers in salsa and stir-frys (and they generally did well and produced lots) we will be growing all three again next year but letting them ripen more and protecting them more from marauders in the early season.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes were strange this year as we attempted to grow one variety and ended up with another. We tried to grow Bellstar tomatoes this year, but they were started too early and close together. The result was they got severe wilt, grew poorly and died off faster than I could clone them to stay alive. They were a disaster.
However we had very good luck with the San Marzanos that volunteered all across our garden bed from last year. We lost many tomatoes to the ground (and groundhogs) last year and got hundreds of plants sprouting from the ground in late spring this year as a result. We planted them and they grew prolifically producing enough tomatoes to can regularly. They grow EXTREMELY tall, however, and 4′-6′ stakes are NOT tall enough for them. 8′ stakes may be needed in the future. Staking them up and keeping them pruned back made them more manageable but they still got out of hand with growth. They need to be spaced slightly further apart (1.5ft instead of 1ft), staked up earlier than July and their suckers must be maintained more carefully. They did end up with a bad case of blight toward the end of the season and died back early as a result, but they continued to produce despite the fungus, which may have been worse than most years due to heavy rains. They were planted in an older, well-worked bed. Additional calcium in the soil (about 1/2 cup loosely crushed eggshells under each plant) nearly completely eliminated the blossom end rot we have experienced in previous years.
Because of how consistently prolific they are and how easily they grow in our soil we will be growing the San Marzanos again, but with more intense management to control blight and over-grown plants. These are well producing but high maintenance plants.

Zucchini

We grow Costata Romanesco zucchinis in our garden. This year they were planted in rough, newly dug beds. This year we experienced extremely high levels of blossom end rot and powdery mildew and (like the tomatoes) the plants died back early. This was in part due to high rainfall but I also suspect that the rough, less fertile soil had much to do with it. Despite that we grew several 4+lb zucchini which easily carried us through the whole summer and gave us some extra to freeze. We will be planting our zucchini with a lot of extra calcium next year to combat the issues we had.

Cucumbers

These were volunteers of an unknown variety that did OK after first being transplanted but quickly began to have problems after the first few fruits. Since these were not meant to be grown this year not much effort was made towards them. Being in full sun in the new, rough, soil dried some of them out to the point of no return. Later in the season the powdery mildew killed whole plants, but nothing was done to prevent these things from happening because we didn’t intend to grow cucumbers this year. Still, it’s good to know what went wrong so we can do better in the future.

Winter Squash (Acorn Squash)

We grew Table Queen Acorn Squash this year, interplanted near our corn stalks. Winter squashes have traditionally done well for us but this year they vined out excessively, did not cooperate with the corn well (frequently pushing the plants over instead of helping to hold them up) and only gave us 3 squashes this year despite the massive space they occupied. They also suffered from powdery mildew and blossom end rot. Because of this we have decided to try other varieties of winter squash next year and put the acorn squashes on the backburner for future attempts.

Carrots

We grew Touchon carrots this year and they did surprisingly well. We attempted to do the “four day” tri-planted carrot method with limited success. The seeds actually took nearly a week to germinate, and the mess of what grew where meant that the carrots were hardly tri-planted. Our soil across our whole lot is thick and clay heavy, and despite amending with a lot of sand, wood chips, straw and compost, we’ve never been able to make good carrot soil. Despite these mishaps, we ended up getting 5lbs of carrots (after removing the greens) out of our tiny 10 square feet (ish) of carrots. Most were small and straight but a few were large and some were crazy and lumpy. They were all quite short as our soil is so heavy. They were also delicious. Most fresh produce is good but the difference in flavor for the carrots was dramatic. Next year we will be growing carrots again, but a different variety designed for heavy soils.

Arugula

The arugula we grew this year did great. It grew well, bolted early and produced many seed pods after. It was resistant to animal consumption and vined out a lot. Strong flavor and very spicy. Will grow again in smaller quantities.

Lettuce
The lettuce mix we grew got consumed heavily by animals in the early spring and suffered in the heat of mid-summer as it tried to recover. It came back strong in the fall as the rest of the garden started to die back, but there weren’t many other vegetables to go with it any more. The lettuce varieties were all bitter and really needed a sweet lettuce to go with them.

Peas

We grew Cascadia dwarf snap peas this year. Early in the season they were dug up by squirrels and eaten down by groundhogs. They struggled to recover in time to avoid being shaded out by plants like the kale. The remaining and sad plants did produce peas that were the best peas I have ever tasted, however. They were extremely juicy and sweet. We will be trying them again next year with a little more TLC.

Kale

We grow Red Russian kale every year and it’s always a star in our environment. It got munched by caterpillars a bit in the hot summer months but bounced back. We did not eat enough of it, however, and really need to get more clever about eating our greens.

Broccoli

We grew De Cicco Broccoli this year. They germinated very well but were really leggy seedlings. They were delicious plants but hardly produced a head more than a couple inches across and they never did become less leggy. We ended up just letting them bloom over and over again to feed the bees during times when other blooms were few. They never produced enough heads to be worth eating substantially. Next year we will be trying cauliflower instead.

Beans

KY Wonder Pole Beans are staple on our farm. As usual, they out-performed most of our crops, producing more beans than we could actually harvest and eat reasonably. My friends and family members were fed with those beans. They also suffered a bit from the wet as they also got hit with various fungi and blights. The new trellises worked very well but really need plastic twine to stay in place. Sisal/hemp or other natural rope twines break too easily and the trellises fall over. The beans also could have been trained horizontally more effectively to allow them to take up more surface area on the trellises. We also need to clip the branches above the trellises back more as they tried to grow up into the trees! Saving seeds from these beans is also amazingly simple. This will continue to be a staple crop for years to come.

Corn

We grew Painted Mountain flint corn this year. Most years we have tried to grow Roy Calais flint corn to no avail. This year the corn actually grew and each stalk produced an ear or two despite our very small stand. The ears were not well filled out and frankly, we didn’t get much corn out of it… But that which we did get was beautiful! Coming in several colors, some ears being solid and some mixed, it’s gorgeous to look at. It did fall over easily. The stalks were thin and needed to be hilled more effectively. The radishes that were inter planted with the corn needed to be removed earlier and replaced with large amounts of mulch to support the corn stalks. Next year we will be trying this variety again as we’ve never gotten a corn to grow to fruit before and I think a larger stand may solve the problems we had.

Watermelon

Watermelons have traditionally been hard for us to grow. We planted Blue Ribbon watermelon. This year we got one small watermelon, but it was strong and ripe. They really need more shade during the height of summer and a longer season. Also, they were planted in rough soil and (like all the plants grown in the new bed) suffered from mildew and calcium problems. This is our second failed year in a row trying to grow these. We will be opting for a different fruit species next year.

Herbs; Mammoth Dill

The dill was transplanted from a pot and never bounced back the way I was hoping. It was plated in with our brassicas (kale and broccoli) to keep bugs away, which it did seem to at least a bit. Last year our kale was devoured by aphids. This year it wasn’t. But the dill itself never became a useful size. Direct sowing will probably serve us better next year.

Herbs; Parsley

We grew some sort of standard curly parsley, and it took off! It’s still alive and growing well in our back yard and seems to have done nicely for itself. The flavor is good and it’s extremely prolific. We will be growing it again next year. Germinated very slowly.

Herbs; Oregano

Did not germinate. Again. Maybe next year? Anyone have any tips on how to grow oregano from seed well?

Herbs; Genovese Basil

Germinated extremely slowly and needs to have a LOT of dirt space to grow properly. I have never seen a plant stunt itself so badly from lack of space before. We ended up growing this in both beds and pots and it did extremely well in both! Very prolific once it finally started to grow properly! Had to pinch the blossoms a lot to keep it from going to seed too early. Next year we will grow enough to dehydrate or turn into dairyless pesto for storage!

Herbs; Thyme

Our thyme grew wonderfully but was used minimally. Should be good as an inter planted pest repellent herb for the future, but not as heavy production for consumption. Forgot to dry the leftover herbs this year. Also took a long time to germinate.

Blackberries; This year we started a stand of blackberry canes. Unfortunately, there’s not enough to share with the birds as they ate nearly all of them. Next year we may try bird netting to maintain the stand better.

Strawberries; These had a great early season but as late summer rolled around they became so thick and over grown that the fruits weren’t turning red and were just rotting away on the vines. We will thin them heavily this year, possibly to hanging pots, and maintain them a bit more carefully to allow us to harvest more appropriately.

Management notes for next year;

This year was very wet and saw a lot of problems despite overall success. Management of soil quality in newly dug beds proved problematic. It was extremely difficult to get the beds in this past spring and many of the plants in those beds suffered as a result. Low mineral levels and low fertility in general seemed to effect some of the plants dramatically.
Animals consumed a lot of plants early in the season. Excluding wild animals from our lawn more effectively is going to be a requirement for the future.
Wireworms were a new problem that hit our potatoes particularly hard. They are common in freshly dug beds for up to 5 years because they live in grass roots. We can’t wait 5 years for them to decide to leave so we will be using other management techniques instead. The potato beds will be tilled repeatedly now that it’s fall, and again in the spring, to make the beds cold and drive the wireworms out. They will be treated with coffee grounds to make the soil more acidic than the wireworms prefer. We will also use small amounts of coffee grounds to fertilize our potatoes during growth. We will lastly be applying a small number of beneficial nematodes, which kill wireworms. It’s our hope that with these techniques we’ll be able to prevent them from living in the root vegetable beds and our potatoes will be safer for it.
Fungal blooms were a large problem as nearly all the plants experienced some sort of disease or another from fungus. Better, airier, plant spacing and more pruning will likely improve prevention of fungal diseases. Tilling soil, baking soda sprays, thick mulching and calcium supplements will also be used to help control fungal blooms on the plants including blight and powdery mildew.

The Summary

Despite some serious problems in our garden with fungal blooms, pests, and rough soil conditions, the garden went very well and produced a lot of food for us! It really felt like the garden was worth the work load this year. We learned a lot this year and I think next year is going to be extremely promising. We’re already adjusting our land and practices to compensate for and prevent the problems we had this year from effecting our spring plantings. I’m looking forward to the next growing season!

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Inspiration

Farming and homesteading is inspiring to me. I get so much joy at looking at things running smoothly and properly. I draw a lot of motivation from looking at other people’s goals, aspirations, and the extremely cool things that they do.

Sometimes down the line I loose track of that joy. I loose track of it amidst things like trying to manage animal pedigrees and planting row crops and producing enough to justify that I am a “real” farmer and balancing budgets. It can be easy to loose some of my inspiration in among all of the red tape.

So here’s a little compilation of some nifty things I plan to do this year that are inspiring for me!

Vertical Gardening and Plant Towers

I really like the idea of growing up instead of out. While some vertical gardening (such as hydroponics in a warehouse) strikes me as wildly impractical, a lot of vertical growing can be done in a back yard and drastically increase your growing space. Hanging pots, PVC planters, trellises and the like all make for an increase in growing space without an increase in growing ground. And this year, I intend to do more of that. As the strawberry plants recover, I will thin them and put the new plants in hanging pots. I will also be trying to get some herbs running in a hanging planter made out of re purposed two liters that will hang near my awning at the back of my garage. This year I will be growing UP!

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PVC strawberry planter Photo credit: goodhomedesign

Natural Beekeeping and Honey

This is happening and it’s great! I have my bees on order and my hive is in the basement, just waiting to be assembled! We are going to be keeping bees in a Warre hive. This is a smaller beehive that’s designed with topbars and minimal inspection. Unlike the Langstroth, whose design is based around what bees will tolerate, the Warre hive is based around what bees make when left to their own devices. The size of the boxes are smaller, the empty boxes load onto the bottom of the hive, they build their own comb for the frames, there’s a lot more airflow as well. It mimics a hollow tree more effectively than a Langstroth but gives much lower yields. My hope is that the bees thrive in it!

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Warre bee hive Photo Credit – Thebeespace

Pollinator and Bee Gardening

Pollinators are extremely important to our environment, growing crops, and plant life everywhere. If I’m going to have bees, I better be more aware about providing for these ever important critters. So I will be building bigger, better bee gardens this year with lots of flowers! The goal is going to be to trim up the Magnolia and put some flowers around it out front, as well as re-do some of the landscaping around the house and plant as may bee-friendly and pollinator friendly plants as possible in the next couple of years. It will even include safe water sources for local bees, one of the things they lack (and need) the most. The hope is to provide a pesticide-free buffet for all the local critters who will desperately need it in the coming months and years.

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A bee garden! Photo Credit – helpabee

Purebred Wheaten Ameraucanas

This year, we are going to begin moving out of Easter Eggers and into a purebred flock. Our rooster is a purebred Wheaten Ameraucana and I now have a dozen hatching eggs of the same kind on order. Later in the year (possibly early next year) we will be ordering a dozen more and hatching some of our own. At that point, by next spring we will be running a flock of purebred blue egg laying chickens (possibly with a couple Australorps or Marans for eating-eggs and fun mixes). It will be exciting to finally have purebred birds!

 

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Wheaten Ameraucana Hen (and rooster) Photo Credit – Paradisepoultryandwaterfowl

 

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Quarteracrehome’s “Will” Wheaten Ameraucana rooster

Fully Pedigreed Rex Rabbits

Early this year we invested in a new buck to replace Cassanova, as we have kept two of his daughters (Lady and Sage) and would like to start filling out our pedigrees. So we now have a new buck that came to us through happenstance that is actually Bean’s grandson! We have nicknamed him Porter (as in a Porterhouse steak) and he will be our new herdsire for our rex rabbits, lending his lineage and traceable pedigree to our operation.

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SkinnyAcres Rabitry’s Porter, our new Rex buck

Companion Planting and Interplanting

This year our garden has been planned, planned again, and then planned some more. We are going to have both companion planting and interplanting on the homestead this year. Companion planting is when you plant two plants next to each other (or in alternating rows) that compliment eachother’s growth or deter pests from one another. Interplanting is related and means to grow two plants in the same space that don’t interfere with one-another’s growth. An example of this is growing beans and corn in the same space. The beans fix nitrogen for the corn, and the corn stalk allows the beans to trellis up them. One example that will be in our garden this year is growing radishes pretty much anywhere a slow-growing plant is seeded. Since radishes grow so fast, they can be harvested before they start to compete with their too-close neighbors. We will be growing as many plants this way as possible this year. Gardening is still somewhat a struggle for us, but we’re always trying to get better at it!

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Crops interplanted Photo Credit thrivefarms

And lastly;

Growing Trees!

Quarteracrehome is going to be working with Western Reserve Eco Network (a local grassroots environmental group seeking to promote sustainability, which I happen to be a part of) to grow a whole bunch of trees in empty lots in the city. These will all be either native northeast Ohio trees to help restore native forestland or fruit/nut trees to help feed the low-income urban communities around Cleveland. Some of those trees fruit trees may come tagging along back to the quarter acre. Additionally, I have several branches from my father’s Queen Anne cherry tree attempting to root in my living room. Not to mention that two of the plants that have been on this property for ages are also fruit trees and I just had no idea. So I am excited to be “branch”ing out this year! Ahahah, tree puns.

And that’s about it. Things that are inspiring me to do new stuff this year, and things I’ll be trying out. Fingers crossed that it all works out!

Everything I see is a seed cup

AKA, my top five DIY/upcycled seed starting options! (Scroll down for a list!)

Last time I reported how I was going to be starting about 300 seeds indoors. That’s a lot of seeds for me, and seed trays can be a bit pricey. So recently everything I’ve been looking at has started to look like a seed starting cup. That novelty glass jar? Maybe I can drill a hole in the bottom and… The tray that holds the custom-painted ornaments I gave Greg this year could just have some holes punched in it and… You know, the top to that board game box is nice, sturdy cardboard just the right depth, and if I planted the seeds in rows… It’s getting out of hand. Everything I look at, whether it’s important, in use, impractical, or not, I can’t stop thinking about cannibalizing it into a seed starting cup! Yikes!

Every year I buy a combination of peat and plastic seed trays in small quantities to add to my collection. I weigh a few things when I buy seed trays. Cost is the first. I don’t wanna be spending a crazy amount of money or I might as well be buying my own veggies, not growing them. Sustainability includes economic sustainability, and I aint in the 1% here! Second is environmental sustainability. Peat trays seem great on the surface… Biodegradable, made from renewable resources… But there’s an environmental cost to everything and a balance must be struck. Peat has to be grown, harvested, and processed into pots. And the equipment required to do that relies on fossil fuels. It’s like how even if you recycle a plastic bottle, it still takes fuel to recycle the bottle so it’s better to have not used it the first time. So peat pots have a footprint from being manufactured. Plastic pots and seedling trays have a higher footprint, but unlike peat pots are reusable. When the ecological impact is divided across several years and the plastic is ultimately recycled, plastic could easily be the better option. Even in a perfectly balanced world, there’s a level of plastic that is sustainable to have in production.

The other thing about peat trays is how they effect livability of plants. Since my soil is lacking in peat, every little bit counts and when I plant my pots I tear the bottoms off but leave the tops in tact. This creates a peat pot ring around the top of the plant stem that helps prevent bugs from attacking them. Plus it adds peat to my soil when I crumble the bottom half into the dirt, right where the plant needs it the most. On the other hand, plants whose roots hit the edge of a peat pot often become stressed and unable to grow further, desperately trying to push through the compressed peat. Don’t believe the lies that the roots will grow right through the pot nd you can plant the whole thing in the ground… They won’t! And it will strangle your plant’s growth. In a plastic pot, those roots simply turn and start growing around the pot in spirals, allowing the roots to uptake more nutrients and water to continue growing (but also creating a tangle of roots). It’s a bit of a trade-off. All around, it just kind of comes out as a wash to me. But I like to give it some serious consideration none the less.

One way or another, buying pots costs money and no matter what I do, a manufactured seedling pot comes with a footprint. So I’d much rather have things that were already made for another purpose and upcycle them into something I can use again! So here’s some great upcycling ideas for seed cups and pots! This is a list about from smallest to largest, because size is very relevant in seed starting pots. If you want to grow your plants for 10 weeks indoors, a larger pot might be better. If you are going to transplant them very quickly, use a smaller pot. I hope it helps give you some ideas!

Toilet paper rolls

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TP and paper towel rolls make for nice, tiny, seed starters. The fact that they are cardboard is nice, you can use them much like peat pots, in that they will wick moisture up through them to keep the plants moist if the bottoms are set in water, without over-watering. I wrote a whole post about how to make and use TP rolls as seed starters way back when I first started homesteading.

Since then I’ve learned a few things about them that are worth noting. One, the ones made from half of a toilet paper roll are smaller than the ones made from 1/4 of a paper towel roll. They might even be too small. Two, they dry out VERY fast, and must be kept in trays with water at the bottom to stay moist. In some places they can develop slime or mold this way, but I haven’t had that happen much. Three; they are VERY small, and as a result, some plants need bigger seed cups or they need to be transplanted at least once before they go outside. So bear those facts in mind as you grow in cardboard tubes. However, once those facts are accounted for they can be quite effective, in abundance, super easy to make, and freeeeeeee!

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TP roll seed starters and peat pots, in a plastic tray so they can sit in water 24/7

Bonus!

Empty wrapping paper rolls! These are exactly like the toilet paper rolls, but bigger. They are cardboard, made the same way, wick water the same way and have all the same benefits and problems. But they’re bigger!

Yogurt Cups

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Yogurt cups (or similarly sized plastic cups) with holes punched in the bottom make good, reusable seed starters. Plastic doesn’t wick water upward like cardboard or peat does and so they need to be watered with more care. But they also don’t necessarily need to sit in a tray filled with water at the bottom either. If you use a good peat-heavy soil with enough holes in the bottom, you can actually bottom water with them too. If you’re worried about your soil mix falling out the bottom from drilling too many holes, just use a small square of paper towel to keep the dirt in but still allow a good transfer of moisture and air.

 

Butter Boxes

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A butter box is just the right size to start seeds in if you trim off the top, or cut it in half. They’re very similar in size to some commercially sold seedling trays. Because they are cardboard, they will wick water like other boxes, but they are covered in a laminate coating, so it will be less effective. This also prohibits mold growth, but can’t be planted into your garden like brown cardboard can. It takes too long to break down.

Similar to this would be pint, half pint and quart dairy (creamer/cream/milk) cartons.

Newspaper Pots

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In 2014 (my god, is that really 3 years ago already???) I tried out these DIY newspaper pots from mother earth news. I hated them. They fell apart constantly. I have since learned about these much more awesome DIY pots that are folded origami-style. Anyone who has ever folded a paper crane will find these to be incredibly simple, but admittedly, they are slightly more difficult than the simple rolled paper ones. However, they hold up SO much better! There are 15 steps in folding this, and it’s no harder than folding a paper airplane. Just give it a try!
DIY folded seed pots!
DIY origami newspaper pots

Make sure your newspaper uses non-toxic ink. Do not use glossed pages or ads, they are often printed by another company and contain different inks/coatings. I get my newspaper from my dad who lives here in Cleveland with me. He gets The Plain Dealer, which uses recycled paper and soy-based ink. Thanks CPD!

These function much like cardboard and peat pots in the way they wick water, but are MUCH more likely to break down rapidly in the soil, and so are much more reasonable to plant in the ground whole if you want a pot you can plant. (Although I still advocate taking the bottoms off.)

Disposable Cups

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If you’ve held any big gatherings recently and have all those dirty, old, disposable cups lying around, just give them each a quick rinse in hot water and punch some holes in the bottom. These big cups provide a great place to plant seedlings that might need some extra root space, whether this is due to a long tap root (like corn) or growing a big plant (like mammoth dill), or even leaving extra room on the top for more dirt (like a tomato plant).

 

And that’s it! That’s my top list for DIY and upcycled seed starters! Seed starting can literally happen in any container with drainage at any time, these just happen to be my absolute favorites. Good luck gardening and may your germination rates be high!

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;

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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.

Whoops, more garden space!

I was coming back in from weeding, feeding (with compost) and pinching suckers in my garden. Dan was sitting on the old wicker couch that is slowly crumbling outdoors and when I offered him a hand up my eyes settled on a forgotten home depot bag on the bench. A slight breeze came through at that moment, blowing it open a bit. Inside were several heirloom variety seed packets… Eggplants, cucumbers, cantaloupe, winter squash, etc. The cucumber packet was puffed up like a jiffy popper, puffed out in all directions.

Oh no.

They’d been outside for WEEKS.

I tore into the bag, only to find some DOZEN of perfectly sprouted, healthy, green cucumber plants. Every Single Seed had sprouted. The winter squash was also starting to sprout and all the seeds had been wet and warm for daaaays.

Well, there’s no stopping it now. Either they germinate and grow right now, this year, or they don’t grow at all ever. But my garden bed is literally FULL!

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The plants in my garden bed have grown, pretty much doubled in size, since this photo was taken, and this was just about a week ago. There’s literally no space left.

Which means digging a new patch of garden and hoping for the best. We have PLENTY of compost still, so in it went. Dan bought me a bag of sand to help break up the blue glacier bed clay that makes up most of our soil. Tomorrow we go out and finish double digging with that sand and some more compost. Then we mulch and plant every seed we can.

Whoops.

It’s SO late in the season. It makes me so sad, even though it’s only a loss of about $10 in total. I sure hope we get at least SOME delicious food out of this effort.

A proper update

I’ve been stuck indoors for the past few days with a second degree sunburn plaguing my shoulders. It started as just a normal sunburn. We went to observe some potential lands for the ecovillage, and the cloudy day when it was supposed to rain turned out to be sunny. So my pale skin turned into red skin. Then, the day after that I helped my sister with some minor home repairs and property cleanup. That day I wore sunblock… To no avail. The next day I woke up with shoulders covered in blisters so hot and angry that I could not dress. The pain is still there as the skin started peeling off before the skin underneath was ready, and now it’s like my whole shoulders are covered in a thin scab from being rug burned. It hurts.

This really set me off as we had a village meeting that evening. It really highlighted my frustration with a certain point of sexism in our society, the free the nipple movement. It’s not that I’m immodest and wanna shake my titties in front of guys, it’s a matter of comfort. If it’s extremely hot out or I have something like a second degree burn across my shoulders I shouldn’t have to strap something across my boobs (and sub sequentially, my shoulders lest it fall down) just to make a bunch of guys feel better about their lack of self control. Heat is hot. Burns hurt. These are practical, physical realities for men and women. But women are required to toss some fabric on under these conditions anyhow, and that bugs me in a big way. And while the group I was part of probably wouldn’t have cared much if I went topless, I felt uncomfortable about it anyhow. I ended up just tying some fabric around my chest in a band so it didn’t touch my shoulders… But the whole thing felt dumb.
(Fun fact, men weren’t allowed to show their nips either until the 1930’s. Prior to that, men were required to wear swimsuits that covered their chest for modesty reasons. In fact, in the 1910’s men were required to wear swimsuits that didn’t cling too tightly and may have even been required to wear skirts over their boxers so they weren’t so indecent!)

Because of the burn, I was forbidden the outdoors until I could wear a shirt without flinching again, which was about 3 days. When I came out, I found my garden beds were starting to grow with a gusto…. And so were the weeds. The birds had gotten big seemingly overnight and so had the rabbits. Turns out that being absent from your farm for half a week has big impacts!

So I finally got to go weed my garden and take some photos (my camera is still broken so I borrowed a smart phone) this week. There are some exciting updates on the farmstead itself!

Remember the sad, sad tomatoes?

tomatoes.png

Surprisingly, they all made it! Some of them are still a little on the smaller side, and some are still recovering. But there’s a huge patch of tomatoes getting bigger by the day growing in my back yard! I have started pinching suckers and blossoms from them. I’m looking to get a crop that I can harvest for canning instead of having them to eat fresh, so I’d like the plants to get extra big before they start fruiting. (I did leave a few blossoms on one plant so we could have a few to eat.)

onion

I have some onions that got planted very late, but are starting to grow energetically. The patch looks bare from about 10′ away, but if you get close you can see literally dozens of onion sprouts peeking through! I’ve had to remind my helpers that these are onions, not weeds.

corn

Somehow the corn made it. But with only two stalks, I’m not sure that they’ll actually pollinate and produce. They were pretty weedy. This whole bed has since been weeded.

beans

The beans and peas are on the northmost wall of my garden bed, but because my lawn isn’t on a true North South line, they are shaded for a few hours in the morning. They’re still growing robustly despite that and are very thick. They’re starting to shade out weeds growing near by.

kale

And speaking of shading out weeds…. The kale! The kale is growing so thickly and is producing some strong, healthy leaves! We’ve started to eat the occasional leaf on a sandwich. The weeds are struggling to grow under these crowns!

We have a few other plants not shown. The watermelons are starting to recover and spring back with lots of new growth and the strawberries are flowering again. The zucchini is flowering as well, which means delicious vegetables are right around the corner! We’ve had some very serious issues with blossom end rot in previous years… This year we planted the zucchini with a handful of crushed egg shells in the hole. Hopefully we won’t see those problems again this year. And the more wild plants like the shiso leaf, the mint, the lemon balm, the plantago and the dandelions are doing well… But they are struggling against the other, less beneficial weeds in the lawn like the cats foot. I hate that stuff.

We also have a few new faces on the farm!

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Two leghorns and two australorps came to us from another farm recently. It’s been about a month and they have finished their quarantine period.  We waved goodbye to the old leghorn (who wasn’t laying), our newest chick and our chick from last year to make room for these new birds. They’re all pullets still, under 24 weeks, but the leghorns are already laying strong and their eggs are starting to normalize in size. Soon they will be in the pen with all the other birds.

IMG_0465

We also have seven little chicks from some eggs we stuck under our broody. We set a dozen eggs, but like every hatch, there were some problem chicks that didn’t make it. We may even loose one of the ones we have now. It appears to have some unabsorbed yolk, or a small hernia. We brought it indoors to try to recover. Only time will tell. But six chicks is a nice number to have. And our broody hen, a blue Ameraucana, could not be prouder!

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IMG_0440

We had our NPIP certificate renewed last month. NPIP is the National Poultry Improvement Plan. If you read my post about vaccines, you’d know that flock health is a pretty important topic to me. NPIP is a simple test provided at a low cost to check for avian influenza and pullorum typhoid. These are both very serious conditions that threaten flocks nation wide. NPIP certification is easy… A tester comes out to test your flock. You get the pullorum result immediately with a simple blood prick test, and a throat swab goes to a lab to check for bird flu. The tester does all the work, you just hand him your chickens. In a flock of a dozen birds they may test 4 or 5 birds. Then you get a certificate.

If a test comes back positive your flock may get destroyed or permanently quarantined to keep these serious diseases from spreading.

Aside from having an official lab test and government agency reassuring buyers that you have a healthy flock (and are willing to risk the entire flock on that fact), NPIP certification is required to ship birds or hatching eggs to most states. The regulations vary a little, but if you don’t have NPIP it’s illegal to take your bird across state lines or to most poultry shows.

Our tests came back clean which means we’ll be able to offer hatching eggs for sale again! Hooray!

So, a lot of exciting and positive things are happening on the homestead this week, despite my arms screaming in pain whenever I lift them above chest level.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go strap some fabric that will assuredly catch on the dry, painful, cracking skin all across these burns to appease the masses while I travel to get some chick feed.

A small update

My camera’s battery charger is missing and my phone is no longer sending photos to my email. I am quite put-out by this as it means no more good photos taken when I am home on my ownsies. I shall have to rely on Greg’s phone to take nice pictures as mine is not a smart phone. I am also missing my tablet cable which is a bit frustrating.

But my life with gremlins aside, myself and a few others spent Saturday and Sunday moving dirt with a gusto. We double-dug the garden bed, loaded it down with as much compost as we could, stirred in some vermiculite and sand, covered it with cardboard to shade and smother any weed growth from the now-improved soil and piled some wood chips near by for future mulching.

The wood chips came from my parent’s front yard where a pair of massive 50+ foot oak trees sat, fused and entwined at their base. Mom loved that tree and would be turning in her proverbial grave to see that dad had it cut down and the stump ground without a thought on what to do with all of the glorious carbon sealed away in those respectable old trees.

Luckily (through much beration of my father for not even bothering to MENTION to his kids that he was having the tree taken down when he knew I wanted the wood, and through many calls to the tree company) I managed to save some of it. A disappointing fraction of the whole. A few dozen massive logs from the top section of a pair of trees with trunks so large I could not wrap my arms around them and taller than my parents 3-story-house. A slab perhaps large enough to make an end table. And a substantial pile of finely ground wood chips from the huge stumps the trees left behind.

Those wood chips will become part of my garden bed, feeding microbes, worms and plants in turn. Those plants will go on to feed me (or my animals which also go on to feed me). And in some small way I will absorb some of the biological uniqueness of that tree into my own being… Or so some distant romantic part of me would like to believe. The chips will be the carbon to my over-loaded nitrogen heavy compost. They will be a mulch for the top to keep the water in. And a massive amount also went into the chicken pen where it will keep my birds happy and healthy.

What’s especially nice is that they are very fine wood chips, mostly being perhaps similar in size to those you might get if you hit a pencil repeatedly with a hammer. And they’ve been sitting in my driveway, aging, for a few months… Which means that they also are already starting to break down. Indeed, in many ways they look more like dirt than my compost does!

So my garden bed is ready. In a week, the cardboard will come off, the dirt will be raked, the mulch will be spread and the plants will go in the ground. Hooray! It’s a shame that in the meantime, the weather is cold and terrible.

I have been making a mad attempt to harden off my millions of tomatoes. They have been sitting on windowsills outside my few windows that get sun. Tonight it is in the 40’s so I tried to bring at least some of them in. In the process I dropped one of my plastic pots with 5+ seedlings in it off the windowsill and it broke. The tomatoes were damaged and scattered. Some may be salvageable. I replanted them all, so we shall just have to wait and see.

And we cleaned rabbit cages today. Our winter was late and only ended recently. The rabbit bedding builds up a bit in the winter because it often freezes and it’s hard to handle shovels with metal bits when it is 10*F outside. So today all the rabbits got moved into cleaner territories, and we also gave the water bottles a thorough cleaning with soap, hot water and a wee bit of bleach on the insides. One of my NZWs seems to be having some health problems with a back leg. I’m not really sure from what. It could be that she injured it in the cage bars or some other accident. It’s hard to notice because rabbits are often still when they are relaxed, but she hops a bit oddly and has trouble getting off her side. We’ll be keeping a close eye on her but it could mean a cull, which would solidify my desire to move solely into purebred standard Rex in several beautiful colors. I would breed in my remaining NZWs that have shown such robust health for a bit of diversity, and breed them out to be purebred Rex.
The only requirement for purebred animals in the rabbit world is that they meet breed standard for 3 generations. The majority of my rabbits aren’t purebred anyhow since I don’t know their history. To some people, meeting breed standard and breeding true is enough to be considered purebred, which my rabbits do. This method of record keeping actually benefits rabbits on the whole as it means that breeders can easily increase genetic diversity, health and production in different bloodlines. We don’t run into nearly as many pesky health problems from closed herdbooks as other “pure” animals do such as horses and dogs.

It would be a good shift, I think, to move into purebred Rex. I love their furs and NZWs are common enough that I could bring them back easily if I ever wanted them. We shall just have to wait and see.