The First Spring Dandelion

DIY Recycled Seedling Pots

Life on our home planet looks rather alien right now. Our sense of normalcy has been disrupted by the tiniest of creatures. And right now, like many of you, I find myself at home, newly unemployed, and a little shaken. But even with the stock markets in free fall, nature remains a constant and steadying force. Seedlings still grow towards the light. Hens still lay eggs. Flowers still bloom. And seedlings still outgrow their starter pots.

I didn’t plan this project just because of the recession, or because I’m tightening my own budget due to my recent change in income. I’ve been collecting cans for months with this project in mind, and I’m especially glad of that preparation given the current circumstances. But if you don’t have all the materials shown here, that’s ok! Exercise your creative muscles and think about the materials you do have, and what you could make with them. People make planters from juice cartons, milk jugs, origami newspapers, yogurt cups, and pretty much any container imaginable.

My Materials: Potting Mix, Worm Castings, Water, Power Drill, Empty Tin Cans

Step 1: Eat the soup, tomatoes, green beans, or whatever is inside of the can. Ideally, you would do this at your leisure. The point is not to eat 16 cans of whatever in one afternoon so you can make this project.

Step 2: Clean the cans in the dishwasher, or in whatever manner you usually clean your dishes. Smooth the cut edge of the can if it is sharp. I have a fancy can opener that cuts a blunt edge, so I didn’t need to take any further action on these cans. However, you could probably use a metal file or maybe even a sanding block to smooth them. Please be careful not to cut yourself on any sharp edges.

Step 3: Drill holes in the bottom of the cans. It is a good idea to wear protective gear during this step, like a dust mask, eye protection, and gloves. It may also be a good idea to clamp the can in place or brace it against something so it doesn’t run away from you when the drilling begins.

Empty Soup Cans with Drainage Holes Drilled In The Bottom To Be Used As Planters

Step 4: Prepare your planting mix. Start with a neutral substrate, such as peat. Add a small amount of the worm castings if you have them, or whatever fertilizing ingredients you prefer to use on your plants. If you’re using the worm castings, aim for about 2-4 tablespoons per gallon of potting mix. A little goes a long way, and too much can overwhelm your delicate plants. If your potting mix is dry, rehydrate it before moving on to the next step.

Step 5: Plant something in the cans! If you’re planting a seed, then fill the can almost to the top with soil mix. Pack it down gently, and then plant your seed according to the directions on the seed packet. If you’re transplanting a small plant, then start with just enough soil to cushion the plant inside the can. Place the plant inside, and gently fill in soil around the plant. I labeled mine simply with Sharpie on Masking Tape. Another option could be to make these recycled plant markers.

Jalapeno Seedlings Planted Into Recycled Soup Cans

Step 6: Nurture your plant every day. And, enjoy!

Tomato plants growing in recycled tomato can planters

The Catch-up and Mustard Winter

My first grade teacher scheduled one school day per month as “Catch-up and Mustard Day”. Her rationale: everyone gets busy, and consequently the small tasks, like organizing papers, sorting out desks, and turning in past-due assignments, tend to fall by the wayside while more pressing concerns take center stage. One day per month, we dedicate ourselves to catching up on all those supporting tasks that will set up our success in the next phase of life. I’m coming off of a long string of busy months, and I need an entire catch-up and mustard winter.

By some unprecedented miracle, the universe has granted my request. This winter has been soothingly kind. The wind has deferred, the cold has diminished, and the sun shines on us at Strawberry Moon most days. I’ve been granted enough grace to clear the old garden, to build frames for new raised vegetable beds, and to remain in the chickens good graces. If this good fortune holds out, I’ll also be able to repay my planting debt to last year’s saplings before next year’s trees make their claim.

The garden before cleanup
The garden before cleanup
The garden after cleanup
The garden after cleanup. Behind it you can see the temporary “buddy coop” where Dwayne “The Cock” Johnson and Dr. John Wattleson live peacefully together, safely away from the bullies. A new and better house for them is planned, but not yet built.
Sunchoke Stalks still in the garden after cleanup will mark where to dig for a delicious harvest
I left some sunchoke stalks in place, to mark my digging spots for a delicious harvest.
Beautiful boulders of happiness, leftover from a big summer project
Some boulders, painstakingly carried home after a big summer project.
New raised beds for an easier care vegetable garden
New raised beds for an easier care vegetable garden. Also in view: the hen house, which needs to have its wheels repaired so it can move to a new spot, and the little hospital coop that needs to be cleaned and stored until needed by the next patient.
Saplings in trenches, meant to have been planted last spring/fall
Last spring’s saplings, still in their trenches. They should have been already planted, but they’re still healthy!
Sticks waiting to become mulch
Sticks waiting to become mulch. About half of these sticks have already been mulched since the taking of this photo.
Bigger logs waiting to become firewood
Bigger logs waiting to become firewood. I haven’t even started on this yet, but I did finally get my chainsaw back up and running. Weather permitting, I’ll tackle it this weekend.

Wishing you good luck and good winter for all your catch-up chores. Spring is coming!

Resolutions For A New Year

This farm originated with a garden. A craving for the rich taste and the warm memories bound to the tomatoes that my late grandpa used to grow was powerful enough to move me to try growing a seed. The power of that seed was enough to propel me to grow a whole garden of seeds. That garden led to another garden, and that one to yet another. When I didn’t have my own land, I rented space in a community garden. When even community space was unavailable, I filled my balcony with pots of soil. But in an ironic twist, when I finally gained some real land of my own, I found myself much too busy for a garden. Between full time off-farm work with a new longer commute and time spent tending the land, restoring over-farmed soils, caring for animals, and planting trees, there hasn’t been enough of me left over to grow a garden. But our soil is well on a path to healing itself, and we’ve already planted over 1300 trees. It’s time to make time for a garden again!

There are still trees to plant and chores to do, and the commute continues; so it can’t be a fussy garden, or a huge one. In an attempt to maximize the efficiency of my gardening time, I plan to build four raised beds this winter. I’ve never had a raised bed before, but I’m told that they reduce gardening time due to their perfectly mixed, weed-free soil and excellent drainage. I’ll need to have these beds totally done before spring arrives, because spring will require its own set of tasks. But I’ve become a fairly skilled builder, and I think I can tackle this project in the time allotted.

I’m trying another new thing for this garden. I selected all seed varieties that claim to be easy to grow and high yielding. In the past, I’ve gravitated towards specialty heirloom types that have amazing flavor and beautiful colors. These types of plants are very fun to grow, but many of them can be fussy and low yielding. While I look forward to growing those special vegetables again sometime in the future, this year I’m looking for some easy wins. Harvest early. Harvest often. Eat. This year’s seed choices are still heirlooms, but they’ve been selected for productivity over novelty. I’m hoping to grow enough bounty to fill my pantry shelves with canned goods for the winter.

Our Plastic Legacy

I try really hard to avoid plastic waste. I recycle, I carry reusable utensils in my pockets to avoid consuming single-use flatware, I bring my own reusable bags to the grocery store, and I try to avoid the infamous plastic drinking straws at restaurants. But try as I may, plastic is everywhere. It’s unavoidable for most of us. And much of it is not even recyclable. So what is an eco-loving citizen to do with all those unavoidable plastic wrappers, bubble mailers, old toothbrushes, zip ties, and other small miscellaneous non-recyclable plastics? We could throw them in the trash, but these small, lightweight articles are very likely to blow away and cause harm to water, wetlands, wildlife, and ultimately to ourselves. Since these deadly convenience items persist in our environment for many lifetimes, their cycle of harm repeats on a loop.

The ultimate solution to this problem is too big for any one person to solve completely. We need corporations to refuse to make this stuff. We need scientists to develop better building materials for products. And since so far, the money is on the other side of this argument, we’ll probably need politicians as well. But I do not fit into any of those categories, and likely, neither do you. Nevertheless, we don’t have to participate in this harmful cycle. We can choose a more responsible, constructive second life for the unavoidable plastics that cross our paths. And in the process, we can also build cool, useful stuff that just might make the world a better place.

Enter: the Ecobrick. An Ecobrick is a plastic bottle, packed tightly with wrappers and small plastic items, then sealed with a screw top lid. If you pack the bottle tightly enough, it can become a weight bearing building material, similar to a brick. Even better, the tiny wrappers and other small items stored inside the bottle are effectively imprisoned, thereby prevented from wreaking havoc on the greater ecosystem.

Completed Ecobricks
My Collection of Completed Ecobricks

I’ve been packing my own plastic (and some plastics from friends and coworkers) into empty drink bottles for the past 10 months. It takes some time, but I find it meditative and stress-relieving. It’s surprising how many items fit inside one bottle. It can take me multiple weeks to fill one bottle, even when combining my home plastics with those from my office. Someday, eventually, I hope to collect enough of these “bricks” to build a new potting shed in the garden using Ecobricks and cob as the primary building materials. It will probably take a long time to collect enough bricks for this goal, but that’s okay. I view it as a lifelong practice. Or at least, for as long as disposable plastic items remain ubiquitous on our planet.

Let’s Get Started!

There are already really good instructions on how to make an ecobrick from the Global Ecobrick Alliance, so I won’t repeat that here. To start, all you need is a clean and dry drink bottle, and a sturdy, smooth stick that is longer than your bottle and less than half as wide as your bottle opening. You can pack the bottle with plastic items as you encounter them, or store up all your packing plastics throughout the week until you have a free evening to stuff them. I do a mix of both depending on my schedule. Everything that goes into the brick must be mostly clean and totally dry. For example, if I have an empty bag of chips, I might turn it upside down and shake out the crumbs before stuffing it into the bag. If it’s oily inside, I’ll wipe it out with a towel before packing it inside my bottle. If I have an item soiled with significant food residue, I wash that with water and dish soap and then dry it alongside my clean dishes before packing it inside the bottle.

What Can Go Inside The Bottle:

Examples of plastics that can be packed inside of bottles to make ecobricks
  • Empty bags of chips
  • Candy bar wrappers
  • Drinking straws
  • Empty bags of frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Cellophane wrap
  • Sandwich bags
  • Shopping bags
  • Twist ties
  • Zip ties
  • Bubble Mailers
  • Styrofoam
  • Discarded toothbrushes
  • Crushed up plastic utensils
  • Empty bags of coffee
  • Tea bag wrappers
  • Wine capsules (the colorful plastic seals that cover the cork and bottle neck)
  • Lots of other items. If it’s plastic and it’s soft or tiny, it can go inside your brick!

What To Do With Completed Ecobricks:

The Global Ecobrick Alliance has another great article called Building with Ecobricks that is definitely worth reading. The section called Earth Bottle Building describes the cob technique I plan to use for the potting shed. If you decide you don’t have any use for ecobricks but you’re still interested in making some, you could donate them to someone who can use them. We do accept ecobrick donations here at Strawberry Moon Farm, as do some other organizations and individuals. If you know you want to donate your ecobricks, find out in advance what kind of bottle your recipient builds with. It’s important that all the bottles be the same size for effective and aesthetic building, so your bottles will need to match those of the project you’re donating towards. You can look for someone accepting ecobrick donations near you on the GoBrik website. This site also encourages you to log your ecobricks, assign unique serial numbers to them, and share validations within the ecobrick community. Feel free to join the Strawberry Moon Farm community on GoBrik!

Gatorade and Pepsi Bottle Ecobricks
28oz Gatorade (left) 20 oz Pepsi (right)

I use two types of bottles. The first is the 28 ounce Gatorade bottle. It’s the middle size gatorade that is often sold at gas stations. This one is nice because it is a very sturdy bottle, and it has a wide opening so you can include larger items. The other bottle is the 20 ounce Pepsi bottle (or any other 20 ounce Pepsi product such as Mountain Dew, Dr Pepper, 7-Up, Bubly sparkling water, Aquafina bottled water). This is a flimsier bottle with a narrower opening, and I find it a little harder to stuff than the Gatorade. However, they’re much more common, so if you have trouble finding a 28 ounce Gatorade bottle, this might be a great option for you. Whichever bottle you choose, happy bricking!

Two Years In Review: A Progress Report

About 2 years ago I published a post called “Resolutions and Accomplishments“, in which I detailed some pretty ambitious goals for the farm.  I’ve only written one other post since then, and that’s not a coincidence.  I’ve been working hard on this stuff, friends!  We’ve had some failures and some successes, but overall I feel really proud of the work DH and I have accomplished over the past couple of years, and even more excited about what’s to come.

  1.  The 1,000 Trees
  2. That first year we planted all the pawpaws, persimmons, and spruces.  It was harder work than planned, and I ended up injuring both of my knees, which knocked me out of commission for the entire fall planting season.  I stashed the other trees safely in trench rows in the field, where they survived just fine.  In late spring we found out we had been chosen for an EQIP grant from NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service).  The grant will reimburse us for part of the cost of the trees, and our NRCS rep has been super helpful and has taught us about even more awesome wetland tree species!  One of the requirements for this grant is that the trees must be planted pretty close together (10 feet apart), so this dramatically increased the number of trees we will plant in the edible riparian buffer.  This year went much more smoothly, and we planted 200 American Plum, 100 Elderberry, 100 Pecan, 100 Red Maple, and 200 Spicebush in the riparian buffer.  Next year, we’ll finish the project by planting more plums and elderberries, plus 100 Swamp White Oak, 100 Shellbark Hickory, 200 Hazelnut, and some number of Highbush Cranberry Viburnum, Serviceberry, Willow, and Hackberry.

 

  1. The Bees
  2. I built 5 mini hives the first winter and set them up in various locations, each one scented with beeswax and lemongrass to lure wild swarms of honeybees. I had hoped that some bees would move into at least one of these “swarm traps”, but sadly it was not meant to be.  By the end of swarm season when I knew I wouldn’t catch any wild bees that year, it was too late to purchase bees for that year.  I didn’t want to take the risk of another year with no bees, so this year I purchased bees.  I first ordered two “boxes” of bees for pickup on April 7.  I built two beautiful top bar hives in preparation for them, and drove to Kentucky to pick them up so they wouldn’t have to spend any extra time on a delivery truck.  Tragically, I took some bad advice which resulted in the death of those first bees.  FYI friends, if anyone tells you not to put your bees in the hive right away because the weather sucks, and instead advises you to put them in a cold basement and mist them with sugar water until a warmer day, please do not listen to them.  Additionally, maybe don’t order any bees for April pickup.  After that sad mistake, I decided to give it one more go and I purchased another box of bees for May pickup.  The weather was warmer in May and the hive succeeded!  These bees have built lots of beautiful combs and stored a lot of honey in their first year.  Winter is an uncertain time for a bee hive, but I’m doing my best to help them succeed.  Winter preparations include:  building the hive out of 2x lumber instead of 1x for better heat retention, inserting a divider so that the bees only have to worry about warming the space they are actively using, packing the empty side with wood chips, providing a candy board feeder inside the hive in case the honey supply runs out mid-winter, and topping the hive with a “quilt” made of burlap stuffed with pine shavings to absorb moisture and provide insulation, adding a mouse guard to protect the hive entrance, and not opening the hive when the ambient temperature is less than 50 degrees.

 

  1. The Birds
  2. DH and I took an epic roadtrip to Lindsborg, KS to adopt our first baby chicks in spring of 2017. I asked for 12, paid for 18, and left with 23 beautiful new souls who insisted on riding the whole way home to Indiana sitting on my lap and drinking water droplets off my fingers. I did a ton of research in advance but I have to tell you, I had no idea what I was getting into.  Every day these amazing birds teach me something new about the world, and I am grateful for the opportunity to know them in this way. To my immense joy, my rooster plan has been a success, and we have been able to keep all of our roosters safely and happily together in their own little frat house. There have been some hard days too, and I’ve had to bury four of my sweet chickens.  I give them the best care I possibly can (including veterinary care when needed), but sometimes it isn’t enough and sometimes there simply isn’t anything that can be done.  When this happens, I try to take comfort in the knowledge that although their life may have been short, at least it was filled with sunshine and love and good food, and I lay them to rest in the orchard and mark their grave with a sapling. Through the good days, bad days, and hard days, I will say it is always worth it.

 

  1. The Solar Panels
  2. The solar panels went up last December and they have been a roaring success!  We haven’t paid an electric bill since April.  DH really rocked this project!

 

  1. The More Cover Crops
  2. The crimson clover did great. It was so awesome that I decided to let it go to seed, even though it’s an annual and I thought I’d only keep it for one year. The bees love it and it has done an awesome job rehabing our soil! I also did a round of buckwheat cover crops last year as a part of our grant project with NRCS. The buckwheat wasn’t a roaring success, mostly due to the dry weather at the time we planted it. I tried again this year, and it still didn’t grow very large but it did flower and it was awesome to have something blooming for the bees in the mid summer when not much else is blooming. My favorite cover crop by far has actually been the dandelions! They are free, and they are amazing. They have a strong taproot that loosens soil very effectively, they need zero care, they are edible, they are useful in herbal medicine and skincare recipes, they provide high quality food for our bees and for our chickens and I personally find them very beautiful. If I had it all to do over again, I would have skipped the sorghum-sudangrass and I would have just planted clover and grass and let the dandelions take care of the rest of it.  Next year we plan to sow pasture grasses on the high land and wildflowers in the low land and that will be the final and permanent (we hope) cover crop.

How To Choose A Garden Tool That Will Last A Lifetime: The Top 5 Questions to Ask Before Buying

Spring is here, and so are the 1,000 trees I purchased to plant here at Strawberry Moon. Of course, my favorite digging tool broke after planting the first 50 trees. It shouldn’t have been a surprise.  I bought that spading fork before I knew what made a good, durable tool.

Broken Spading Fork
Death By Clay

It’s not the first tool that has perished at the hands of my Indiana clay soil. I broke my first garden tool in my second year of growing.  It was a hoe.  The metal hoe flew off the wooden handle, and that was that.  Nothing I tried could reattach the handle securely enough for it to function as a hoe again*.  Since then, there have been many other casualties of the trade: leaky cheap hoses, cracked plastic watering cans, bent cultivator tines and splintered wooden handles.  Poorly made tools waste your time and your money, waste our precious natural resources, and could even cause injury.  I understood this then as well as now.  Some of these broken tools came with lengthy warranties, none of them were the cheapest tool at the box store, and they all looked and felt sturdy at the time.  So if you are willing to shell out the extra cash for a top of the line tool, how do you find the right one?  How can you tell if a tool is really built to last a lifetime, or just overpriced to give the illusion of quality?  Here are some criteria I’ve found to be important in choosing my tools.

1. The #1 most common problem I have experienced with long handled tools is that the handle separates from the metal tool head. When choosing a new tool, look at the attachment between the handle and the metal implement. If you see that the metal is crimped around a handle and expected to stay on by tension alone, don’t buy the tool!  Buy one that is attached with removable screws, or all one piece. Not only is this type of connection more secure, but it is user serviceable. If that handle detaches or breaks, you can replace the handle without having to buy a whole new tool.

Garden tool with improperly attached head
This tool head is not sufficiently attached to the handle. The handle will separate from the head.  Even if you manage to reattach it, the same problem will likely reoccur repeatedly.

Garen Tool With Rivet Attached Head
This tool head is securely attached to the handle with a rivet fastener, but if the handle rots or breaks, it may be more difficult to remove the rivet than a simple screw or bolt.  However, I am told it can be done.

Garen Tool With Screw Attached Head
This tool head is securely attached to the handle with a removable screw. It should stay securely attached, and if the handle does break, another can be easily installed.

2. Look for good quality metal. Research the type of metal used in the tool you are considering to find out if it’s strong enough to resist bending and denting, reasonably easy to sharpen, and able to hold a sharp edge well.  Hoes, knives, spades, and scythes all require periodic sharpening to perform their best.  Hand cultivators and spading forks should be thick and very strong.  All metal tools should be reasonably rust resistant.  Care for your metal tools by keeping them clean and dry.  If light rust does occur, you can scrub it away and apply oil to prevent it from returning.

A rubber mallet with a broken handle
I bet this never happened to Thor’s hammer.

3. The handle must be strong. I once bought a rubber mallet with a cheap wooden handle. Eventually, the handle broke in half, rendering the entire tool useless. If you are buying a tool with a wooden handle, Ash is the ideal wood. It’s what baseball bats are made of.  When buying knives, look for a full tang (the blade runs through the entire length of the handle as one solid piece of metal).  Care for your wooden handles by rubbing them with walnut oil or mineral oil annually or more frequently as needed.

4. Ergonomic design is also extremely important for any tool you will use regularly. Is the tool comfortable to hold? Does it utilize your biggest muscle groups (arms rather than wrists, legs rather than back)? Can it be used in multiple positions to prevent overuse injuries?  Can it be used while your back is straight?  Protect your body. It’s the best tool you have, and it’s irreplaceable.

5. Company reputation and warranty sometimes indicate long lasting products. If a company has been in business a long time, has a good reputation, and stands by their products with a 10 year or longer warranty, then they probably made a good tool.  That said, the broken spading fork that inspired this article came with a 25 year warranty, and only lasted a few seasons.  It appears to have been attached by setting the metal “stem” in some sort of resin or concrete-like substance.  The molded base cracked, setting the fork free from the handle.  Yet another decapitation victim!  So while a long warranty period is definitely a good sign, it’s not necessarily a guarantee that the tool will last.

You probably won’t find any top quality tools at your local box store, and I haven’t had much luck at my local garden centers either.  If you’re lucky enough to live near a hand tool specialty store like Earth Tools**, then you’ll be able to try out various high quality tools in the store, and ask the experts your questions.  Farm and garden conventions also often offer a nice selection of hand tools in the vendor hall, and of course pretty much everything is available online.  There are a lot of great brands out there, but I’ve become somewhat smitten with the DeWit** line.  They have some really inventive designs, and the quality seems to be top notch.  I’ve only been using their tools for a year, but I haven’t managed to break one yet.  Regarding the aforementioned plastic watering can, I replaced it with a nice metal one by Haws**.  I’m so far extremely pleased with the build quality and ergonomic aspects, but time will tell if it was actually worth the exorbitant price tag.  I don’t consider myself an expert on hoses yet, but in general, the really heavy, thick ones last a lot longer than the lightweight flimsy ones.

*I threw that broken hoe into the trash can at the community garden space, and a fellow gardener rescued it and reattached the head by welding. So if you have welding equipment, a detached tool head might not be the end of the day for you! I still recommend the screw attachment heads, because a projectile hoe head can be dangerous and decidedly inconvenient.

**Suggestions, NOT affiliate links.  I was hesitant to include any links because I’m not here to sell you stuff, but I thought they might really be useful to you.  Live your life according to your own purpose, think for yourself, own your own choices, and shop wherever you want.

Resolutions and Accomplishments

Crimson Clover
Crimson Clover after one month of growth (9/2/16)

Last year was my first year of farming here at Strawberry Moon, and it was a great one.  Sorghum-sudangrass flourished in our fields, loosening the soil and covering it with a thick layer of mulch.  In September, crimson clover was overseeded into the sorghum-sudangrass, and we are hoping for a breathtaking, honeybee-luring carpet of blossoms come spring.  I also attended several conferences and workshops to learn more about beekeeping, permaculture, winemaking, grape growing, and small scale farming.

Inside the house, all 58 incandescent and halogen light bulbs were replaced with energy efficient LEDs.  Drafts were blocked, insulation was installed.  DH even completed a training course to become a certified solar panel installer, so we can build our own solar energy system at a substantial savings.  All these things will help us achieve our goal of a self-sufficient, eco-conscious farmstead.

Last year was an important and necessary foundation-building year for the farm, but this year I want to see some real action.  These are ambitious goals for someone with a full time desk job, and I’ll need help if I’m going to pull this off.  With a little but of luck and a lot of hard work, it will happen.

  1. 1,000 Trees!
      To jumpstart the edible riparian buffer project, we will plant 300 elderberry trees and 300 wild plum trees in our wetland!  These will comprise the majority of the understory in that area.  Additional edible tree and shrub species will be added to the wetland later, when seedlings become available.  On higher ground, we will plant 100 Norway Spruce trees for an edible windbreak (needles and new growth “tips” have culinary and nutritional value), 100 red oak trees as a short term timber crop (we will later grow mushrooms on the cut logs), and 100 each of pawpaw and persimmon to kick-start our orchard.
  2.  Honeybees
      Before winter is over, I intend to build two top bar bee hives and four swarm traps. If we are lucky, some wild honeybee swarms will find our clover fields, and then decide to stay.
  3. Chicks
      I’m nearly finished building the first coop and brooder, so I’ll be ready whenever our chicks are born. I expect a call from the breeder in April, but the exact arrival time is unknown.
  4. Solar Panels
      If all goes as planned, we will install an array of solar panels large enough to cover most or all of our electricity usage. Although solar energy is not a vegetable, it is nevertheless a valuable resource we can harvest from our farm.
  5. More Cover Crops
      Last year, I had planned to grow a third cover crop of tillage radish. This didn’t work out because the sorghum-sudangrass never stopped growing! Rather than kill the sorghum-sudangrass with chemical sprays or risk re-compacting the soil with heavy tillage machinery, I let it grow until the killing frost. That meant I couldn’t plant the radish seed I had already purchased, but it also meant we received extra value from the sorghum-sudangrass. Since I already had the seed, and I believe tillage radish will greatly benefit our soil, I decided to extend the cover crop project by one year. After the spring bloom of crimson clover, we will grow a short summer cover crop (probably buckwheat), followed by the radish in August. The pasture grass will be postponed until next year.

The Quest For The Cruelty-Free Egg: Five Easy Steps To Happy Chickens

As a lifelong animal lover, I try to be a kind, respectful farmer.  And while I once thought it would be easy to identify the most compassionate farming practices, some choices prove to be more complex than they seem.  Case in point: welcoming chickens into the farm ecosystem.  While you might have some preconceived ideas about how chickens should be housed, raised, and fed, there may be more to consider if you’re truly invested in raising cruelty-free food.  Here’s a list of five things to think about before adopting your next flock of chicks.

Step #1: Selecting A Breed
Although you could choose a breed based on which chick is cutest, you’ll have more success if you carefully select a breed that suits your climate, lifestyle, and goals.  A chicken who was born for life in the tropics will not be happy or healthy in a climate with harsh winters.  Likewise, a cold hardy breed may not thrive in a region with sweltering summers.  Next, think about how you will interact with your chickens.  Are eggs your only goal, or are you willing to sacrifice a couple of eggs per week in exchange for friendlier personalities and beautiful feathers?  Are you willing to choose a healthy, strong, all purpose heritage breed, even if they eat more than some of the less hearty breeds?  If free range chickens are important to you, look for a breed that knows how to forage, fight, and hide.  If your chickens will have less free space, look for one that bears confinement well.  Selecting the right breed for your situation gives you and your chickens every chance of a successful partnership.

Step #2: Placing An Order
After you choose your breed, you’ll need to find a place to buy chicks.  Mail order hatcheries seem to be the most common choice, and for good reason.  Hatcheries are cheap, convenient, and offer a wide selection of many different poultry breeds.  They’ll even ship the chicks to your door.  However, despite the convenience, hatcheries may not be the kindest source of chicks.  Some hatcheries are factory operations, which employ some of the very same cruel practices you may be trying to avoid by raising your own chickens.  Hatcheries also favor volume over quality, so you may not receive the strongest, healthiest birds when ordering this way.  If you choose to breed your chickens, the offspring from hatchery birds may sell for a lower price than those from a top quality breeder.  I chose to order my chicks from a well respected home breeder, who breeds show quality chickens.  Although I don’t intend to show my birds, I love supporting small farmers with ethically sound practices.  Plus, since I selected a heritage breed in threatened status, it is important to me to support those who are working to preserve and improve the breed, and for me to pass on the best possible traits to future generations of chicks born at Strawberry Moon Farm.

Hatcheries offer a choice between sexed chicks (all male or all female) or “straight run” (a random mix of male and female chicks).  Most people will order only female chicks, since they’re all that’s necessary to harvest backyard eggs. However, if you don’t take the male chicks, no one else will either.  More information on this here:  Where Do All The Roosters Go.

Step #3: Adoption Day
It is a common practice to ship chicks through the mail.  However, chicks sometimes die, or are lost in the shipping process. Even if they arrive safely, I wonder whether this is a kind and respectful way to treat a newborn living being.  The breeder I chose agreed to let me adopt my chicks in person, rather than sending them on a harrowing journey through the postal service in a dark, cold box.   This spring, I plan to take a road trip to a neighboring state, equipped with a heater, food, and water for the chicks to enjoy during the five hour journey home.

Step #4: Living Space
I had always taken it as a given that when I had chickens, I would allow them to free range.  I believe it’s important for chickens to engage freely in their natural behaviors, to soak up the sunshine and forage for insects and fresh plants.  They also benefit the land in many ways. But after hearing all-too-common stories of entire flocks being massacred in a single day by a single stray dog, I began to have second thoughts.  We live on the edge of a woods, in the company of many predators from foxes to dogs to bald eagles.  I have also learned that chickens find fruits and vegetables even more delicious than bugs, so it may also be advantageous to limit their access to the food crops.  My revised plan is to build an extra large mobile chicken coop, connected to a movable covered aviary and totally surrounded by a very spacious portable electric fence.  The entire setup can be moved as needed to circulate the chickens around the property, and will provide ample space for the chickens to play.  This system will provide good protection for the flock, while still offering most of the benefits of free ranging.  If you do choose to contain your flock, keep in mind that tight spaces encourage pecking, fighting, and other nervous behaviors.  Each full size chicken will require four square feet of coop space to stay happy, plus a spacious outdoor run.

Step #5: The Retirement Plan
After 2-3 years, a hen’s egg production will begin to decline.  Since I choose not to slaughter my chickens (except in cases when it is the only humane choice), I am committed to caring for them even in their old age.  This will reduce profits, but even old hens are good partners.  They will probably continue lay an egg from time to time, and they can still turn food scraps into wonderful fertilizer, prepare new vegetable beds, and serve on the insect control squad.  Not to mention the value of their wonderful company!

Conclusion
Though the quest for the cruelty-free egg is proving to be more nuanced than I once thought, I look forward to this challenge.  It is an opportunity to become more connected to our food, to learn more about our world, and to enhance the land and the lives of a few lucky birds.

Maple Vanilla Pumpkin Pie, With a Real Pumpkin

Maple Vanilla Pumpkin Pie

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  Today, my family will sit down together to enjoy some heirloom recipes passed down from my grandmother, some of my mother’s exquisite culinary creations, and my contribution to our table, a Maple Vanilla Pumpkin Pie.  Most of the ingredients in this pie are available fresh right now in our part of the world, and one day soon I hope to grow these ingredients for a true farm-to-table pumpkin pie.  The fresh baked pumpkin and dark maple syrup combine to make this pie a truly unique, hearty, seasonal delight.  Try it for yourself!

Filling Ingredients (inspired by this recipe):

  • 1 pie pumpkin
  • 1 TB coconut oil
  • 2 cups fresh milk or 1 12 oz can evaporated milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup of the darkest maple syrup you can find.  None of that light amber stuff!
  • 1 heaping TB all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

Crust Ingredients (inspired by this recipe):

  • 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 stick butter (4 oz), cold and cubed, plus more for greasing the pie plate
  • 1/4 c ice water

 

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 400°F.
  2. Slice the pie pumpkin in half lengthwise (such that you cut around the stem).  Cut out and discard the stem piece.  Use a spoon to scrape out and discard all the seeds and stringy parts from the inside of the pumpkin.
  3. Grease a baking sheet with coconut oil.  Rub the rest of the coconut oil into the insides of the two pumpkin halves.
  4. Place the two pumpkin halves cut side down on the baking sheet.  Bake until you smell a delicious caramelized pumpkin scent.  This takes about 30 minutes, but it could take longer depending on the size of your pumpkin.  When done, the pumpkin skin should be bubbled and the flesh should be very soft and fork tender.  Cooking too long is better than not enough, but take care not to burn it.
  5. While pumpkin is baking, combine milk and maple syrup in a small pan.  Simmer over medium heat while stirring occasionally until reduced to 1 1/2 cups.  If using fresh milk, this will take more time than if using evaporated milk, but the end result will be similar.
  6. While the pumpkin is baking and the maple milk is simmering, make your crust.  See directions below!
  7. When your pumpkin has finished cooking, and has cooled enough to handle, scrape out the flesh and pack tightly into a 1.5 cup measure.  Set aside any extra pumpkin flesh for pumpkin soup, smoothies, or another pie.
  8. Reduce oven temperature to 350, to prepare it for the pie.
  9. Add pumpkin, maple milk mixture, flour, salt, vanilla, and cinnamon to a food processor or blender.  Puree until very smooth.
  10. In a mixing bowl, carefully beat eggs until thoroughly mixed, but try not to whip any air into them.
  11. Pour pumpkin mixture into eggs.  Mix thoroughly.
  12. Pour pumpkin mixture into the prepared pie crust.  Bake uncovered at 350°F for 70 minutes, or until firmly set.  You should be able to insert a toothpick into the middle of the pie, and see that it comes out clean.
  13. Cool, chill, and enjoy!

 

Pie Crust Directions:

 

  1. Pulse flour, salt, and butter in a food processor until blended.  If you don’t have a food processor, you can mash by hand with a fork.
  2. Slowly add the ice water while the food processor continues to run until a cohesive dough forms.  If mixing by hand, try not to knead this with your hands if possible.  It’s important to keep the dough cold, to create a flaky texture in the finished crust.  If you do have to knead it with your hands, then cover the dough and stash it in the freezer for 10 minutes before rolling.
  3. Liberally flour a pastry board, and roll your dough lightly until coated in flour.  Smash the dough down with your hands until it is about 1.5″ thick.
  4. Working from the center of your dough towards the edge, roll the dough flat with a rolling pin.  Bring the rolling pin back to the center of the dough, and this time roll the dough flat in the opposite direction.  Lift the dough, flip it over, and rotate it 1/4 turn.  Repeat until dough is round, about 1/4″ thick and sized to line your pie pan.
  5. Grease your pie pan with butter or coconut oil
  6. Lay your pie crust over the pie pan, and press it gently into place.  Using a sharp knife, trim away any pieces of dough that drape more than 1″ over the edge of the pie pan.  Roll the rest of the excess dough back towards the pie plate and crimp into place for a classic pie crust edge.  Cover and store in the refrigerator if you are not going to bake right away.

 

Where Do All The Roosters Go?

When people talk about backyard chickens, they almost always mean backyard hens.  Many people think of their hens as pets, and enjoy watching them scratch around their back yards, turning weeds and grubs into cruelty-free fresh eggs.  Home-grown food is a beautiful thing, and providing a happy life for any living being is a kind and worthy endeavor, so I am not here to dissuade anyone from welcoming a few hens into their lives.  But have you ever considered, where do all the roosters go?

Roosters are one of the most unwanted, unloved, and unappreciated creatures on our planet. They don’t lay eggs, so it is hard to justify the cost of their upkeep.  They can also be noisy, aggressive, and even destructive, so some city ordinances and homeowners associations prohibit roosters. Since male chicks are unlikely to be adopted, most are killed soon after they hatch.  The others are usually slaughtered for meat before they reach adulthood.  If I wasn’t such an animal loving vegetarian, I might be okay with raising roosters for meat.  But since I am, I much prefer not to kill my animals if there’s any other choice about it.  While some people will keep one or two roosters in their flock, it is nearly unheard of to keep them all. In fact, it is so uncommon that I have only been able to find one non-rooster-killing homesteader in the whole wide web.

They may be hard to love, but roosters are far from worthless.  They are exceptionally beautiful, often possessing showy, multi-colored feathers.  Roosters are also valiant protectors of the flock. If kept with hens, they will raise the alarm when a predator is near, warning the hens to take cover. If push comes to shove, a good rooster will do battle with a predator, often sacrificing his own life to protect his hens.

The general consensus is that if you do decide to keep a few roosters with your hens, there should be no more than one rooster per twelve hens.  Otherwise, the hens may be injured from too much mating, and the roosters may fight (think: cock fights).  However, I don’t want to keep just one rooster for every 12 hens.  I prefer to keep all of my roosters, and statistically that means about one rooster for every one hen!  Although this is a very uncommon practice (almost nonexistent), I have developed a plan that just might work.  Maybe it will be successful, or maybe not, but either way I expect to learn valuable lessons, which I can then share with you.

I will define success based on three markers:

  1. No rooster should become overly aggressive towards other animals, such that the life or emotional welfare of another animal is threatened.
  2. No rooster should attempt serious harm towards a human being.
  3. Rooster upkeep must be affordable, or offset by products and services received from the roosters.

My plan to achieve these goals is as follows:

  1. House roosters in their own coop and run, apart from the hens.  Preliminary discussions with experienced chicken keepers indicate that roosters will be less inclined to fight if there are no girls to fight over.
  2. Provide ample space, food, and entertainment.  Chickens are less likely to engage in shenanigans if they are happy, healthy, and busy doing something more interesting than pecking each other.  I’m starting out with a much larger coop and run than they need, and I will move it every couple weeks to provide a continuous source of fresh plants and bugs.
  3. Select a docile breed, and certainly not one that was bred for cock fighting.  Rather than choosing the best egg layer or the breed I found most beautiful, I tried to choose the friendliest chickens.  Luckily, the Faverolles breed appears to possess very good egg laying skills, excellent winter hardiness, and beautiful feathers to go with their calm temperment.  Many people say this is the only breed of rooster they trust with their children.  I also love this because it is a rare heritage breed in threatened status.  I hope to play a role in preserving them for future generations by starting my own small breeding program.
  4. Let no talent be wasted.  Although they don’t lay eggs, roosters can still provide great fertilizer, work shifts on pest control duty, clear new vegetable garden beds, and clean up dropped fruits from the orchards.  Many roosters, including Faverolles, grow long, colorful feathers which fall out naturally during the annual molting period.  I plan to make art and jewelry out of these feathers, which can be sold to help pay for the cost of rooster food.  Most jewelry feathers aren’t obtained in such a patient manner, so I look forward to offering a kinder product.

I’ve been told that even if I do everything perfectly, there may come a time when one or more of my roosters becomes unacceptably aggressive. If the health and safety of the other animals are threatened, then I will make the kindest possible choice.  Maybe I can find a new home for the problem rooster, or rework his living situation.  Even if all else fails and a life must be taken, at least it will have been a good life. Unlike the day old male chicks thoughtlessly massacred at hatcheries, or the adolescent cockerels slaughtered while their meat is still tender, these birds will have lived a long, full life.

I am in the process of building two movable coops in anticipation of the 12 baby chicks who are scheduled to arrive in the spring.  Stay tuned for more chicken news!