Monday, March 29, 2010

Reflecting and Redirecting

I started this blog in July of 2009 as a way to write about my experiences of, and ideas about, a Backyard Nest Egg – an investment in food security. The idea gradually came to me, after a difficult period of my life. I had lost my second grant-funded job in three years, health problems that had been festering for awhile demanded my attention, and the stock market crashed, with many people losing a chunk of their retirement savings - some up to 40% of their 401Ks. It seemed to me then, and still does now, that investing in one’s own food security is one of the best nest eggs one can establish.

After all, I reasoned, what are our most basic needs to sustain life? We need food, shelter (a low-cost, low energy-consumption home is my next project – one that is in the beginning stages at this point), and clothing. Inspired by gardeners like Ruth Stout, who devised labor-saving strategies for producing, well into her eighties, all the vegetables she, her husband, and her sister required, I began thinking about how I could provide for Rick and myself. Three general principles emerged from my thinking and work: minimizing purchased inputs, labor-saving, and sure bets.

Minimizing purchased inputs means to me finding ways to produce food each year without buying tons of seeds, plants, fertilizer, and other garden amendments. Anybody who has done any gardening learns very quickly how fast these things can add up. When gardening is just a hobby, you don’t mind too much. But when the goal is to actually provide food for your family in hard times or during retirement, spending more on your garden than you would spend just buying food at the grocery store makes no sense.

Seed-saving, taking cuttings, rejuvenating a strawberry bed by training new runners and removing “mother” plants each year as I described in
Wednesday’s post, making your own compost, keeping chickens or some other small livestock, like rabbits, for fertilizer, planting perennial food crops like walking onions, asparagus, fruit trees and berry bushes are all ways to minimize your purchased inputs so that you can truly realize a return on your investment in food security.

Labor-saving, obviously, means finding ways to make the work easier. Initially, I was thinking about my health issues and inspired by Ruth Stout’s ideas for a “no-work” garden. I realized that serious gardening to put food on the table was possible even with physical limitations imposed by disability or advancing years. My goal was to investigate and write about gardening practices that enable gardening throughout one’s life. When I read Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution, my notion of labor-saving expanded from simple work reduction to encompass the need for free time in order to become a full human being. (Read more on Stout and Fukuoka’s ideas about “no-work” and “do-nothing” gardening and farming in
this post.)

Labor-saving strategies I’ve written about include no-till strategies of Ruth Stout, allowing your chickens to turn your soil a la
Garden Girl, sheet composting or latter day “lasagna” gardening (Patricia Lanza), returning organic matter to fields to compost there (Fukuoka) and the benefits of compost tumblers.

Finally, sure bets refers to the principle of diversity – planting a variety of crops and using multiple strategies to ensure that you are able to harvest something even in a bad year. For example, last summer I planted Juliets, Amish Paste, and German Queen tomatoes.
I harvested many Juliets, which are elongated cherry-type tomatoes that ripen early. However, we had a cool summer and “late blight” hit just as my beautiful Amish Paste and German Queen tomatoes were starting to ripen. Had I planted only the paste and slicing tomatoes, I’d have harvested virtually no tomatoes at all. As it happens, Juliets work well in salsas and we enjoyed many batches of that from our garden before the late blight.

How did we do that in a cool summer? Don’t chilies require warm weather? As I
described here, we grew the chilies in clay pots, rather than in the ground, and were harvesting fruit right through the fall.

I plan to continue writing about these three elements of a Backyard Nest Egg, and my experiences of gardening and keeping chickens, but the focus of this blog will expand to reflect my evolving sense that the right and responsibility of individuals to produce their own food needs to be articulated and even defended.

All social movements eventually experience push back of some kind, or counter-movements. The return to producing at least some of our food for ourselves will be no different. It’s a loose movement, certainly, composed of many people with many different motivations.

Some gardeners and chicken-keepers want to eat food that they know has been produced healthfully, others are concerned about our economic predicament and want a back-up food source, still others simply want to be more self-sufficient. For many, it’s a combination of these reasons. Nevertheless, I see it as a movement, not a “fad,” and as growing in size and strength.

The opposition is, at this point, is not organized or strong. However, the signs of opposition are everywhere, from people in middle class neighborhoods who resist community gardens and public orchards, to animal rights groups lobbying city officials to disallow chicken-keeping, to University extension agents concerned about the “threat” backyard chickens pose to industry. These are the issues I will be writing about, in addition to the usual chicken and garden topics, in the coming months.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Strawberries and Raspberries

It’s hard to say what I most look forward to in spring – opening the windows, at last, and filling the house with sweet fresh air, riding my bicycle outside, rather than on a trainer in front of the television, seeing the snow recede and the lawn green up, seemingly overnight. But I think number one on the list has to be checking the garden to find all the green shoots emerging from last year’s dead foliage.

So far, I’ve found sedum, Shasta daisies (VERY satisfying, because I planted them from seed last year), coreopsis, liatris, lupines, yarrow, sage and a few others I can’t remember just now. The hostas haven’t come back yet, nor the butterfly weed I planted from seed, and the roses and hydrangeas have yet to show signs of life. But it’s still early.

And the strawberries look fantastic! I pulled the hay aside about a week ago. I’m fairly new to growing strawberries, but the books say you’re supposed to remove their winter mulch early. This will be my first year with (I hope!) a significant crop, and I’m soooo looking forward to it, my mouth waters every time I think about it!

I first tried strawberries in 2008. So many books and articles describe strawberries as a great container plant, I thought I’d grow them in a strawberry pot I’d had for years and in a large planter box Rick built for me. I learned the hard way that the books and articles LIE! Anyone who has any experience growing strawberries knows they constantly send out runners and spread like weeds. They quickly outgrew their containers even though I was out there practically every day, cutting off new runners. They produced lots of beautiful foliage, but just a few small berries.

Part of the problem was the cultivar. The garden center was out of my top choice, Honeoye, so I bought Ogallala, just because I used to live in Nebraska and liked the name! Unlike Honeoyes, Ogallalas are everbearing, which means instead of one main crop in spring (usually June), you get a small crop in spring, and another crop later in the summer.

Which means the few my plants were producing were spread out over the season, making the tiny crop seem even smaller. Plus, the Ogallala produces a “medium to small” berry, even in optimal conditions, so it’s no wonder I got such small berries out of a container.

The next year I decided to get the cultivar I wanted, plant them in the ground, and follow the method of my new guru, Ruth Stout, for rejuvenating the patch. The books will tell you to buy new plants every few years, but Stout was a thrifty woman, and buying new doesn’t fit in with my notion of minimizing purchased inputs for your Backyard Nest Egg. Since her garden was wonderfully successful, and she prided herself on ignoring what she called the “authorities,” I’ll do the same. Here is her method in her words:

I planted three rows of berries, the rows about 8 inches apart. . . I let the first plant in each row make only one runner, straight down the row, and let the other plants in each row make two runners, one up, one down, the row. When I was finished I had three rows of plants, the rows 8 inches apart, the plants in
each row 1 foot apart. But it looks like and is, actually, one row. . .

A year from the following spring, after I had picked the first crop, I pulled up the first plant in each of the three rows, left plants number two and three, pulled up four, left five and six, and so on. In other words, I got rid of the mother plants and left the runners they had made. Then during that summer, the plants I kept were allowed to make just enough runners to replace the ones I had pulled up. Year after year, the older plants are removed, the newer ones are left, and that isn’t much of a job. You have a permanent bed of strawberries and will never have to transplant again unless of course you want
to try a new variety . . .

in August when, I’ve been told, the plants make their buds for next year, I treat them to a little cotton-seed meal for nitrogen
(Ruth Stout's No Work Garden Book, 1971, pp127-8).

I tried doing the same, but it came out a little messy. Still, it was at least controlled growth. I let one stolon grow on each side of each plant, staked it where I wanted it with a hairpin, and cut any other runners off. After I get my berries this year, I’ll try removing the “mothers” and let last year’s runners set some new plants in their place for next year.

I also have high hopes for a good raspberry crop this year. I planted them in 2008. They were just twigs and looked like this:

Raspberries have one of two fruiting habits: summer bearing and fall bearing. The summer bearing actually bear in late spring or early summer, and on canes that grew the prior summer. The fall bearing cultivars produce fruit late in the season, mid-August to mid-September, on the current season’s canes. (For this reason, they’re not a good choice for northern climates because our growing season is so short.)

I chose summer bearing over fall bearing partly because of our short growing season, but also because I wanted the fruit to set before Japanese beetle season starts, usually in early July. Several of our neighbors had raspberry patches that were decimated by Japanese beetles, so I wanted to avoid that. The plan was to cover them with fine netting (which interferes with pollination) once Japanese beetle season starts.

This worked beautifully last year. We had a small crop of berries, which was to be expected the first year, but the plants were fully protected and grew lush foliage and many new canes. (I can’t believe I didn’t take a photo last year – they looked fantastic! But I can’t seem to find one just now.)

But here’s where I made a mistake. There are two prunings that need to be done: one in the summer of the canes that grew the prior year, after they fruit this year, and one in late winter to remove the top ¼ of canes that will fruit this year. Some sources claim you can do the first pruning either in summer after fruiting, or wait until spring and do both prunings at once. (In fairness, most sources advise doing two prunings.) Lazy me decided to wait until spring and do both at once.

Here’s the problem: Now I can’t tell which are the canes that bore fruit last year and which are the canes that will bear this year! It was easy to tell them apart last summer, because the canes that had just fruited were woody, and the canes that will fruit this year were green. Of course, by now, both types of canes are woody! Lesson learned: Prune the old canes after they fruit; don’t wait until the next spring! It’s not that much work.

Since my master gardener’s manual says canes should be thinned to 4-6 canes per running foot of row, and canes in my patch are still almost that thin, I opted to leave the old canes in this year and just prune about a quarter off the tops of all the canes. If the canes that produced fruit last year don’t leaf out, I’ll remove them then.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Spring Chickens

The snow has finally receded here on the frozen tundra of Wisconsin. (Southern Wisconsin, that is. I imagine they still have plenty of snow up north.) It’s amazing how fast big piles of snow can shrink once the weather warms.

So I put the girls to work turning the soil and fertilizing my raised beds. (I got the idea to make their tractor the same size as the raised beds for this purpose from Garden Girl.) They energetically dug deep into the soil, clucking contentedly the whole time. I always get a kick out of watching them. It’s like they’re thinking, “I’m SURE there’s something good to eat in here, somewhere. I just have to keep digging, and do it fast, before those other broads beat me to it!”

It’s such a relief to quit worrying about them out in the cold – and great satisfaction to see how well they came through the winter. Aren’t they gorgeous? I know, it’s hard to tell from the pictures above. But they wouldn’t hold still for a photo. Trust me when I say their coats are glossy, their combs have changed from pink with whitish dry patches back to bright red, and they have no sign of frostbite!

Many people told me they would get frostbitten and lose part of their combs, but not to worry! It won’t hurt them; you just won’t be able to show them. I never even thought of showing them – nor thought a little frostbite was acceptable. We worked hard to prevent that, although luck probably played a part.

Following the advice of our poultry extension specialist, we tried to ensure the coop stayed well-ventilated. The reason is that they are more susceptible to frostbite in cold humid air than in cold dry air. He recommended leaving the pop door open in winter for this reason. We could only bring ourselves to leave it half open at most. On very cold nights, we left it open only an inch or two. On a few extremely cold nights, we closed it completely.

I think we got away with it partly because I removed their droppings (collected in a tray under their perch) every morning. Droppings are a big source of humidity in the coop. We also put bag balm on their combs on the coldest nights – when they let us!

Sometimes Batgirl really fought this, and even held a grudge against Rick for about a week after he caught her and applied it. Since she had the smallest comb, and we didn’t want to upset her too much, we let it go when she resisted. Her comb is beautiful now, and even has grown enough that it’s hard to tell her apart from the other Barred Rock.

Although we didn’t heat the coop, Rick did put two 2+ gallon plastic gas cans (which had never held gas) filled with very hot water in the coop at night. This raised the temperature inside the tiny coop 10-15 degrees!

I also believe that giving them greens all winter helped keep them healthy. I have no extension research or other “authoritative” source for that. It just seems to make sense. I’ve never given them vitamins, but greens are loaded with nutrients – and their favorite treat. In summer, we let them out of their pen daily to eat greens, and threw dandelions, sunflower leaves, and any other greens we had on hand into their pen.

During the winter, we ended up buying most of their greens. Recently, I’ve been giving them turnip greens I’m getting for 81 cents a pound. But next winter, I’ll make more of an effort to grow greens, so I don’t have to buy them.

Now that they’re laying again, I make sure they get greens twice a day again, instead of once as in winter. After the snow melted, we found lots of green parsley in the herb bed. Since it looks good enough to eat, I've been giving it to the chickens, so I don't have to buy all their greens.

I’ve often wondered whether, if people fed their chickens plenty of greens, they would even need oyster shell for calcium. They’re programmed biologically to eat what they need, and it’s greens they go crazy for. I do put out oyster shell, too, but I can’t tell how much of it they’re eating. It seems like most of it gets spilled onto the floor of their pen.

Certainly, their eggs have very strong shells. After slowing production in December, they took January and February off. At the beginning of March, they started laying again, one by one. We’re now getting about 3 eggs per day from the three of them! I’d read that eggs are larger after their first molt, and that has turned out to be true. I’d say their eggs are now about the size of a grocery store “large” egg.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Potatoes and Eggs

As usual, I got ahead of myself. These are Red Norland and German Butterball potato starts, but technically, they should not be set out for another month or so. In fact, the “lasagna beds” I prepared for them last fall are still covered in snow! According to the master gardener literature, early season varieties should be planted when the soil can be worked, usually around late April in Wisconsin.

The good news is that, beginning tomorrow, we will have highs of 40F or higher for at least a week. All the snow should melt. After that, I’ll cover the future potato beds with plastic for a week or two to help warm them up. Then maybe I’ll be able to plant the potatoes early, under plastic, in a sort of mini-hoop house.

What happened was that all the potatoes I saved from last year’s crop to use as seed potatoes long ago sprouted. They all had vines several feet long! I was afraid that if I waited much longer, the plant material would become unusable. Minimizing purchased inputs is crucial to my notion of a Backyard Nest Egg, so it was important to me to be able to propagate potatoes from last year’s crop.

Most sources advise propagating potatoes from seed potatoes, or by cutting up larger potatoes into pieces, leaving an eye in each piece. But I have also read that producers of seed potatoes grow them from vine cuttings, rather than from other potatoes. In fact, I read somewhere that if you grow potatoes only from seed potatoes saved from the prior year’s crop, after a few generations, the potatoes become “gnarly” and quality declines.

So it occurred to me to try rooting sections of vine as well as the potato. First, I cut off the ends of the vines and planted those in soil. Next, I cut middle sections of the vines – these have cuts at two ends. I stuck these in water to root. Lastly, I planted each potato with part of its vine.

All these pieces of plant material have rooted and leafed out! I’m very pleased, because I ended up with more plants than I would have if I’d just had little seed potatoes to plant. (I have another shelf of seedlings above those in the photo.) It remains to be seen whether these methods of propagation will produce nice potatoes, but I don’t have any reason to believe they won’t. Luckily, potatoes are notoriously easy to grow.

In other news, the chickens started laying again! We got our first egg of the season last Sunday. Clearly, they're not all laying yet, because we are only getting one egg per day from the three of them. I'm fairly certain that Tracy (the Rhode Island Red) is not one of them, although in the past, she has been one of our best layers. But she is still recovering from her molt.

Of the Barred Rocks, Amelia's comb is the reddest and most recovered from winter. Then, their combs were pinkish and waxy looking, with white patches. Now they are starting to look more like they did when they started laying last year.

And Batgirl's comb appears to be growing! Is that possible? We always called her the "tomboy" of the chickens. She has the smallest comb and was the last to start laying. She's more of a loner, too. She doesn't stray far from the group, but usually she is apart from the other hens. She's always been the most adventurous of the group as well.

When she did finally start laying, she was careless with her eggs. The others were very good about going to the nest box to leave their little gems. But she'd occasionally drop an egg on the floor of the coop or pen. One day, she did it while I was out there. I had just stepped out of the pen for a few minutes. When I turned back, there was an egg and two chickens had already pecked it open.

Having read about the difficulty of getting chickens to stop eating their own eggs once they start, I knew I had to take action immediately. "No! No! No!" I cried. I scooped up the egg with some shavings from the pen, carried it to the compost bin behind the coop, and dumped it in.

Then it was Batgirl's turn to get upset. Frantically, she ran up and down the side of the pen squawking loudly, presumably because her egg had been snatched. I went back into the pen and offered her treats - greens, the cracked corn she loves more than any of the others. But there was no distracting her or calming her down. She carried on and refused to eat for at least as long as I was out there doing chores. I don't know when she finally finished her mourning and got back to the usual chicken business of scratching and eating.

I decided it was a good development, though. She never again laid an egg outside the nestbox. Batgirl has grown up, I thought!