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!

Flowering

Today I went out and got some lovely photos of the early spring blossoms. Warning, this post contains many high-res photos.

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Crocuses of some sort growing alongside our wild garlic

There’s not a whole lot blooming, but there’s some. We’re still a long while away from the violets, dandelions and asters that flood my lawn in late summer and fall.

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One of less than ten dandelions currently in bloom in our lawn

It’s really nice to see all the life starting to creep back into the world, though. And these early flowers can be a lifesaver for bees, especially wild ones.

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Daffodils are considered one of the best early flowers for pollinators.

I even took a few shots of the tree out front of my house. The same one you saw weighed down under snow in my last post. The lovely pink blossoms are just about on their way out. After much digging I have finally identified this mystery tree outside my house as am ornamental plum tree, either a cherry plum or purple leaf plum. Both have edible fruits in the late summer to early fall ideal for making jams. I had NO idea that this was the case, and perhaps I shall have the opportunity to taste them this year. I have my pectin and jelly jars all ready!

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Beautiful pink flowers, already shedding their petals

Also on the list of “things I didn’t know” are these gorgeous pink flowers that produced for me one whole apple last year. I was shocked. When I saw it, I thought it was some sort of bug’s nest hanging on a branch. I have NEVER seen this plant do anything before, but I knew it was in the rose family and given that it never produced a fruit, I assumed it was a rose bush, not a fruit tree. But apparently it’s an APPLE shrub!

apple2Who knew!? Maybe we will get more apples from it some day. I would like to try to graft some branches onto it from other very-early blooming apple trees and see if I can get a real apple crop! I shall be trimming it down aggressively this year, along with the plum tree. They both need a serious pruning.

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Even our Magnolia is in bloom, though it’s flowers aren’t quite so useful. They don’t even feed bees, and the tree is a mess. It’s my least favorite plant on my property.

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It can be hard to photograph in the wind.

Pretty much all of these plants were put in by the people who owned this house before the people who owned this house before us. Apparently they were a couple of old retired ladies who loved to garden. I find myself in need of upping my game. The plants they chose are generally lovely, but I want to grow flowers too! Specifically bee flowers. You may recall some of my previous posts about gardening, especially for bees, wherein I attempted to grow some bee-friendly flowering plants to ultimately end in epic failure as they were dug up by my chickens escaping the confines of their chicken pen.

Well this year, I thought I’d try again. I invested $20 in a mixed shade perennial package from Costco, same as last time. It came with five hostas, five astibles and five crimson star columbines. These are all big bee attractant plants that bloom from early to late summer. And so far, things are going OK.

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My initial investment on day 2

The plants came in plastic bags which I immediately opened, tried to sort them into generally upright positions, and then watered heavily. Recently I repotted them. Since then, the columbines have done squat nothing, they may indeed be dead completely on three of them.

But the astibles and hostas are doing MUCH better!

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The hostas in their new pot this morning

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Two of the astibles, separated and growing nicely.

In addition to these I also purchased a pair of lilac bushes that were similarly sad and pathetic upon arrival. Lilacs are good for butterflies, and sub-par for bees, but they are my favorite flowers, and all pollinators need food, including butterflies.

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Sad lilacs, the day after arrival

They have since perked up significantly and nearly doubled in size.

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Lilacs in their new kitchen-side window home!

And lastly, I also did some homesteading things while I was outside today. I started by pruning and separating some blackberry canes that were starting to overgrow.

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New leaf growth on a blackberry cane

Then I weeded the strawberry bed. The weeds were then tossed right back into the bed, root side up, to produce mulch for the strawberries. It may not look like much but the nine plants we put in last year have multiplied into a couple dozen. Depending on how well they do, some of them might be dug up, washed, and repotted for some vertical gardening I would like to do.

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And with the advent of freshly disturbed mulch, dirt and plant, the chickens attempted to lend a beak to the process.

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Chickens, invading the strawberry bed. The string to designate the area off limits to the dogs means nothing to the chickens.

So they were given a handful of wheat berries that we use to grow fodder on occasion, away from the strawberries, which kept them distracted until nightfall.

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Chickens love snacks

Making today a warm, beautiful, and otherwise rewarding day. I just still wish that the REST of my lawn wasn’t quite a swamp, so I could get right down to gardening. This weather would have been perfect for it!

The Tomato Saga

Today I shall tell you a tale of tomatoes. An epic saga of the last month as it unfolded.

This year I had some solid gardening plans that included growing a large number of tomatoes. I wanted to learn to grow something well and I chose tomatoes.

Greg asked me “But why? We almost never eat tomatoes!” My other partner, Dan, said “Blech, I won’t even eat them. They are gross.” And it’s true. When you think of how many fresh lumpy chunks of tomatoes we eat in a year, the number is quite small. Perhaps 5-6 tomatoes a YEAR grace my table.

Then I asked a simple question; “When was the last time we ate something with tomatoes?” Of course they struggled to recall, so I suggested the previous Monday evening. It finally hit them. We had pizza. Tomatoes are in pizza. And BBQ sauce, and ketchup and salsa and pasta and curry… Tomatoes are EVERYWHERE in our diet! And I wanted to stick those squishy, awful vegetables into a blender and put them in jars and eat them throughout the year, served up with sausages and grains and potatoes and garam masala.

So they understood, I wanted a LOT of tomatoes. And I wound up with around 30 seedlings. Seedlings that grew well under some lamps in my living room. The weather got warm. It was well above freezing. We were getting lots of alternating rain in the 50’s and blazing sun in the mid 60’s. It was perfect growing weather for most plants. I took my strong started seeds and started hardening them off by setting them outside the windows for the sunny hours of the day.

Finally our last average frost date hit, and I set them outside in the garden bed to stay there overnight. the weather was still perfect and had gotten just a bit warmer on average. We were hitting the occasional day in the upper 60’s. We started having cookouts. I woke up to discover nothing but stems the next day. Greg had not properly checked the chicken pen door, and my tomatoes had been demolished and the peas and beans I’d planted a week before were dug up. I had pots upon pots filled with 30 stems of former tomato plants.

I rushed the plants back indoors, under my lamps and where they could be well nourished and amazingly most of them survived! They grew new leaves and were flourishing. We had even purchased a few small back up Roma tomato plants from the hardware store, and they were gaining real ground on these completely uneaten plants.

Two weeks after our last average frost date. The majority of the plants move outside and go into the ground. A few stay indoors to continue to recover. It’s been a bit cooler, but not significantly so. The weather looks cooler, but safe still for the week with lots of rain, and is predicted to get hotter the next week. So into the ground they went!

The cold seemed to cling a bit, but it was raining steadily. And then I woke up to an absolutely frigid morning.

I rubbed my eyes. I peered out my window and wondered when my neighbors re-did their roof in such light colored roofing tiles. It had been a while since I slept in that room (as I have two bedrooms). Then I wondered when the neighbors painted their AC unit white on top. And if they had power-washed their driveway so it was so white…

Snow. Two and a half weeks after our last average frost date.

I jumped up and collected Dan, and we went outside with jugs of steaming water. At this point I realized it wasn’t snow at all, it was 1-2 inches of small hail. It was warm enough to slowly melt the hail, but not nearly fast enough. We poured the water around and on the plants to melt the hail and heat the ground and thaw the plant’s frozen leaves. The mulch was dark and would absorb some sun. As we finished watering down the plants, the ground around them was steaming between the hail and the hot water that was soaked in the ground. It took something like an hour to melt the hail and create a warmer microclimate for the tomatoes with hot water… All the while my back yard was flooded something awful and our shoes and sock became soaked with ice-melt from the hail.

It worked… Mostly. Nearly every plant has survived the debacle and is starting to really come back! It’s impressive. And I have the few plants that were struggling to recover that have no gained massive growth on their outdoor counterparts to plant in the spots where the other plants have failed.

And so the tomato saga continues. They are finally starting to set green, undamaged leaves on their crowns. The weather has been feeling like it’s blazingly hot, but I know it’s just warm, being in the low 80’s on some days. It’s really the perfect weather for the tomatoes to grow and they are doing so energetically despite their setbacks.

The peas and beans we planted after the chicken debacle are now sprouting and growing fast. A sole, lonely cucumber is attempting to sprout and grow. My two corn plants continue to truck along as well. The spicy peppers are outdoors as well; they, too, suffered from the frost.  The bell peppers are still indoors under lamps. The leftover tomatoes are starting to move outdoors. One zucchini died, the other one lives, and the watermelon plants appear to be starting to recover as well. The kale is growing very strong and we’re looking forward to salads and leafy greens! We filled the space that would have been zucchini with onion sets. The strawberries are well established now, but just aren’t doing much. Their bed is new, and still very rough and struggling to become healthy soil.

My camera continues to be out of commission. I shall try to get some photos tomorrow for my next update. Perhaps I shall simply have photo days on the blog.

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!

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.

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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.

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Too close!

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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!

Cleaning Up the Homestead

The past week or so has been a rough one. We have lost three rabbits (all kits thank goodness) due to various circumstances, two of our hens are broody, our garden is doing as well as any plant I have ever raised (which is to say poorly) and there’s so many things that need fixing, cleaning or replacing it’s incredible. And with me teaching a demonstration on harvesting rabbits for a college class in a week everything has to be ship-shape!

First the kits. We lost two from the litter of nine that Purina gave us and one of the boys growing in the garage. One of the younger kits decided to hide under the nest box and was crushed when all the other siblings got in it (or perhaps mom for feeding time). The second one died recently, we can only think it was from heat stroke but we’re not sure. It wasn’t even crazy hot out that day, but I just walked out to find it long dead in the back of the cage. We gave the rabbits frozen water bottles and we’re hoping we don’t lose any more.
The third rabbit we lost was the second smallest of the rabbits in my garage, all boys, growing out for meat. When I put together the grow out crates (Remember this?) I was in a pinch, low on cash, and needed a quick solution so I bought a $13 roll of the sturdiest deer netting I could find and slapped it on with my dad’s staple gun. Well, since then it worked for months. Then when I started getting baby rabbits consistently they started to chew through. None of the previous rabbits figured that out. Some of them would jump out, but not chew through! The last litter was the worst as they chewed about four holes in one cage. Then this litter began working their way through the other cage. One day after putting all the babies back I brought the dogs in the back yard. Nukka was loose as I went to care for the outdoor rabbits. The next thing I hear is a panicked squeal and I am running to the garage, dropping keys and anything else along the way shouting “NUKKA, NO!”. The wild baby rabbits had just been a few days prior.
Turns out the babies had chewed a hole I hadn’t seen and one felt the need to jump out again almost immediately. Nukka picked it up around the chest and shook it. Oddly she didn’t seem to have broken the skin but I knew right away that the rabbit wasn’t going to make it. I set up to butcher it to put it out of it’s misery and at least get some meat out of it. Nukka seemed rightly ashamed. She crawled out of the garage almost on her belly and lay down at my feet as I got close. She almost rolled onto her back to flash her belly, and she clearly knew (this time at least) that she’d made a terrible choice.
When I processed the rabbit I found the wounds; cracked ribs and punctured lungs filled with blood. I couldn’t find any breaks in the skin even though I tried. A few days later we had some roast rabbit for dinner and the chickens got the organs.

So thing #1 to fix; Grow cages. Actually I already did this. The walls are now metal chicken wire and there is a deer-netting roof instead. Since then? No escaped rabbits at all.

Additionally the baby rabbits somehow had been managing to escape the outdoor cages. I feel like there is a tiny gap in the bottom of the cage and they were deliberately jumping out (why can’t baby rabbits know that staying in one place is GOOD?) to explore. We swapped them into the cage above and moved Evo down below. No more escaped bunnies but that still needs to be sorted out some time.

Thing #2 to fix; Outdoor cages. Not actually sure how I am going to do this.

Our one broody hen started laying again just in time for a second one to go broody. That one should be laying again soon and I sure hope it’s today because a THIRD hen went broody just a few days ago. (Actually I think it was the first hen over again. She may be slated for the stewpot.) So we needed a way to confine her.
We also seriously needed a rabbit tractor. Our “broody buster” for the hens WAS our rabbit tractor, but it was also pretty small. Greg and I set down together and made an animal tractor.

Iams, formerly known as Purple, enjoying her time in the tractor. Iams is Purina’s kit kept over for replacing Evo as a breeder.

I just cut and screwed together some random pieces of wood we had lying around. The design is not the most sturdy; some 2X4’s, plywood, OSB and reclaimed cedar all with only 14 screws holding it in place… It’s wobbly but it works and it’s pretty big at 4’X4’X2′. Just a bit bigger than the cages the outdoor bunnies have. (technically theirs are like 46″X44″ or something.) We’re thinking of making a second, smaller one with what wire we have left or even getting more wire and making a bigger one.
At the end of the month our meat chickens will be coming in as well, so this will be essential to transitioning them outdoors and giving them lots of fresh grass to eat. I really want my animals on pasture more!

The lawn and garage are both a mess. I need to clean and organize both. I leave things scattered throughout my lawn as I work and so it looks pretty bad… A milk-jug here, a plastic bag there, a few random empty plastic pots… And the garage is just a bit of a nightmare with all the scarps of wood around!

I have to finish my strawberry bed. A very nice person got me some reclaimed garden brick edgers that make a circle and were foolishly being used for a square bed. I think they will do great around my strawberries. The strawberries have been the best part of my garden lately. They are ever-bearing so they have been blooming heavily for a while and are now starting to explode in big, red, sugary berries. Not enough to do anything with yet, but enough to enjoy. Additionally I managed to plant a few of the tiny, low to the ground wild strawberries in with my big, tall domestic ones and both kinds are spreading! I started with three plants (two domestic one wild) and now I have about a dozen. They have been sending out runners like mad and I am so delighted. Next year I may have enough to make something out of them!

How the berries looked a week ago. I picked the biggest one of these yesterday as it was already red and turning darker by the moment. Best strawberry I have ever had. There are also more flowers now.

The rest of my plants are only doing so-so. We harvested the peas a while back, and we’re hoping they’ll give us a second crop this year. Our arugula and kale are FINALLY coming in to the point we’ll be able to eat them. Our basil is doing fine and my mother gave me some sweet, mild, purple basil so we have a small forest of it. The cucumbers and zucchini are both blooming but the flowers keep falling off. Our big heirloom tomato is FINALLY blooming and I hope to get some big thick tomatoes out of it. None of the tomatoes I started from seed are more than about 5 inches tall. Poo. We went out and bought a whole bunch of discounted tomato plants recently, though, and we’re hoping to get a good fall crop from them!

The carrots are starting to really come in and the beet leaves are huge but I have no idea how the roots are doing. The onions I think are finally starting to grow their bulbs and most of my wild garlic has gone to seed. That’s good because I would like lots of garlic year after year!

Next year I think the garden will do much better. Come fall during the last days above freezing I will till in our brewing compost and scatter some of the worms I got earlier in the year on it. Then next year I will start my seeds early in more optimal conditions, and plant the seedlings in better locations (like the tomatoes in more sun and the spinach in the shade). Next year our garden will be epic. Live and learn.

The last thing that happened recently was the sudden acquisition of 1.5 gallons of mulberries and a whole box of over-ripe peaches. There was only one thing to do… MAKE LOT OF JAM! 😀

My sister and I sat down with half-a-dozen boxes of pectin, two grapefruits and three bags of sugar. By the end of this Monday we walked away with 10 jars of perfect mulberry jam, three jars of perfect peach/grapefruit marmalade, and 12 jars of somewhat runny peach jam. (All these jars are pints, not half-pint jelly jars!) We even tried re-processing the peach jam with more pectin, sugar and grapefruit juice to no avail. It’s just gonna have to be runny. Either way, not only are we set on jam for a year (or three) but we’re giving some to our parents and to the wonderful person that supplied the fruit to us completely free. It was a good (if hot and sticky) time. Next time I will post some pictures of our jam.

As a side note we ended up having to go to Wal-Mart for more jars much to my regret… The Mainstays Wal-Mart brand jars were just nowhere near as good as the true ball mason jars (they had ball jars there but not pints). We’re not sure all the Wal-Mart jars sealed correctly as some took overnight to pull down the lids… And the jars tried to leak air when we first put them in the canner. The ball jar lids pulled down within minutes every time and we didn’t have any such issues. Just don’t bother using anything but ball jars.

Let’s see how much work I can get done today. My demonstration is in one week. It looks like it’s going to be in-person but I could still record it or stream it if there’s any interest in this. I hope I can get everything finished by then! And after that the meat birds come in!

The work is never done…!