Quick Update

Our thoughts are, of course, with the families hit so hard by the recent tornados in the south.

Given the rigors of the last weeks of the semester, my posting during the proper-week will be a bit sporadic, but please check back on the weekend and on Mondays!

Looking forward to many more words this summer.


Preparing for Chickens – Whitewashing the Coop

When we decided to raise chickens year round (sometime around January, when the snow really got to me and I was convinced that spring might never come again), it was not without a lot of thought and planning.  Last year, we kept four Rhode Island Reds in a chicken tractor that we built, literally, forty-eight hours before they arrived from a friend’s chicken operation about a half hour away.

The summer tractor for our laying hens.

All I knew at the time was that I wanted fresh eggs (this was before last summer’s salmonella scare), but that as late in the game as we were (or as late as it felt like we were), I was in no position to raise chicks, move, and figure out the garden.  When winter came, we gave them to a farmer up the road who raises hens for eggs because our chicken tractor (while attractive and efficient) was no means warm enough to house the girls through the winter.

The two things I knew about chickens, as we began researching our next flock, was that I wanted a friendly dual purpose bird, that would continue to thrive in a cold environment.  But in order to help the chickens thrive in a cold environment, they’d need a better wintering pen.  We started with our tractor barn (pictured above, behind the chicken tractor).  Half was already used (with tractor and tool storage), but the other half was  a dirt-floored room (about 10′ x 12′).  While I was in China, my fiance and one of his good friends framed in a floor, and over this weekend, we divided the room in half with a partial wall, forming a chicken pen and storage area.  From that same friend who helped with the floor, we inherited nesting boxes with a sliding back panel for egg removal. Once we’d framed everything in, we built two doors, and covered the whole pen in chicken wire.

The real trick, though, was learning how to whitewash.  Whitewash is an old fashioned method of preparing barns for livestock.  It helps to keep down bugs (particularly mites) and gives the barn a clean, white glow (without all the chemicals present in modern paint).  That said, it will wear off in the rain, so I only plan to use it inside my barn, not outside or on my fences.  It will also brush off onto clothing, which makes it fine for a barn, but not something I’d use in the house.

To make whitewash, you start by purchasing a bag of hydrated lime (a white powder that runs about $7 – 10 per 40 lb bag).  Given how little lime the whitewash uses, this is both incredibly economical and safe for animals once it is dry.  However, while handling powdered lime, you want to make sure you’re wearing gloves, goggles and a dust mask). I continued to wear gloves and goggles throughout the painting process because the whitewash is thin and splashes easily.  You may also want to wear old clothes, though I found that the whitewash washed right out of my work pants.

In a bucket, mix:

12 c. Hydrated Lime

1 lb. of Table Salt (I used uniodized)

2 Gallons of Water (roughly – just mix until it forms a paint like consistency)

Paint on your barn or coop walls and nesting boxes.  It won’t look white immediately, but it will whiten as it dries.  My photos currently show only one coat, but I plan to follow up with a second coat later this week.

Photos to follow later this week!

On Gardening Attire…

On Wednesday, after several days of planning, plotting and just-plain procrastinating, I bought my first pair of Carhartts.  You know what I’m talking about, the heavy work pants that are impossible to fold straight from the dryer (even worse off the line) because their properties ensure durability and not a small amount of inflexibility.  My fiance has several pairs because he’s a man who does real work, but until recently (until the chickens, and the barn extension and five hundred other projects (several of which include the use of the tractor), I felt that I could get by.

My Carhartt bias was largely formed in college.  Where frat boys who had never lifted anything heavier than a keg wore Carhartts to the bars to show off their latent manliness to the sorority girls who found them a rustic change from the usual preppy attire that was worn at all other social events.  As a scholarship girl from a small, rural town, the sight of freshly-pressed Carhartts worn with a pop-collared polo was just a bit too much.

So after wearing out several pairs of very nice (and too-expensive-to-be-wearing-to-water-chickens jeans), I went to the local farm store and bought myself a pair of hunter green Carhartts.  Not because they’re the most attractive pants in the world (they fit beautifully around the waist but the legs are strangely and awkwardly too wide), or because I ever plan on wearing them into town (heck, no!), but because I see what I’m doing here as real, hard work.  And every girl deserves something that will keep her shins safe so she can continue to wear skirts in the summer.

The Great Cookbook Search

I love books.  Nothing makes me happier than spending a few hours in a small, independently owned bookstore (when I am close enough to civilization to actually find one) or unpacking a box full of books received through the mail via a variety of online booksellers.

As I’ve tried to build my  homesteading library, I’ve found a few that I’ve absolutely loved, but I’m always looking for more to round out those tasks that I just don’t know enough about.  A few of my favorites (which I’ve likely mentioned before) are  The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, The Backyard Homestead, Animal Vegetable Miracle, Preserving Summer’s Bounty, and How to Raise Chickens: Everything You Need to Know.

But as I move toward trying to use more of my hard-earned produce, I’ve also begun to realize that I need a little help filling that particular bookshelf.  I have my favorites, but they are primarily baking cookbooks (the trusty King Arthur Flour series), Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (which has changed our busy, busy lives for the better), Eating Well, Serves Two  (for those nights when there really are only twenty minutes to cook dinner), and many others. 

At a yard sale a few years back, I picked up Gardeners’ Community Cookbook, which is an interesting read, but not quite what I was looking for (I will admit that I’m always suspicious of yard sale cookbooks because I, personally, can’t fathom selling any of my must-use cookbooks).  I’m hoping to find a great cookbook that covers how to use fresh garden produce when its fresh (paired with other ingredients that are also coming into bloom at the same time (so I can lessen my carbon footprint by not going to the grocery store to buy eight or ten things that aren’t in season here so I can use the one or two things that are).  Even better would be a cookbook that’s a little more inclusive, recognizing that we’re omnivores (and the fiance is suspicious of dinners that contain no sign of meat).

I would love suggestions!  What are your favorite homesteading and cookbooks?

The Value of Waiting

It’s been a long string of grey days with temperatures just warm enough to leave the snow receding, giving  back precious inch by precious inch of last year’s garden (though it’s still muddy and cold enough that outdoor work requires Wellingtons and gloves and an assortment of cold-weather gear that looks more akin to cross country skiing than spring gardening).

I’m trying to embrace this time, knowing that I still have six weeks of work before the school where I teach releases its instructors for the summer, but it’s hard not to be chomping at the bit, wishing away these days for days with chickens! and fresh vegetables! and soil to prepare!  That said, I’m trying as hard as I can to make lists and get the house in order, so when the sun comes out, I’m not inside cleaning out closets and organizing canning jars in the basement.

This morning, I’ve been working on a list of tasks to help me remember that there are plenty of indoor tasks that can keep me busy until the outdoor tasks begin to gobble up my spare time.  I’ve been reading more and more about composting in Pleasant and Martin’s great book The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, and in two weeks, I’ll be picking up my worms for vermiculture, so I need to finish building both those bins (out of a pair of 5 gallon buckets) and and the outdoor bins, which will be constructed out of used pallets that we are recycling.

The future home of our chickens (photographed last year). This year's plan involves an extensive renovation and whitewashing the inside of the coop-area.

Later this weekend, we’ll finish framing out the cold weather chicken coop, so (hopefully, on Monday) I can begin to whitewash (using hydrated lime, water, and salt) both it and last year’s chicken tractor.  We’re also working on building a hoop house, so we can “semi-free-range” our meat birds (we need to semi-free-range because of a host of predators native to our neighborhood).   I’m also going to set up our incubators (grossly-prematurely) to ensure that we have everything we need for the chick arrival date, which also happens to be the first day of finals week.

I know most of you are already in places where the grass has overtaken the snow and ceded your garden back to spring, but what were you doing to prepare in the weeks before you could be communing with the soil?

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Over the weekend, we finished planting the last of our seeds that need a a good 6 weeks before outdoor planting, and I spent a solid hour online at McMurray Hatchery, watching the Buff Orpington chick videos and eagerly awaiting their arrival (admittedly, part of the reason I gave into such sloth was the way the dog’s ears perked up every time they started to peep and the fact that it was rain/snow/sleeting outside and too cold to work on finishing off the larger wintering-coop). They arrive a month from today, just in time for summer break — 27 Buff Orps. + a mystery chick that we’ve been joking around about for weeks.

Today, I’m hoping to get into the basement and start clearing out the remains of the root cellar and canning wall, so that they’re ready when July and August roll around and suddenly my kitchen is full of little, jewel toned jars.

But, seriously, back to the seedlings.  As part of my gardening OCD, I’ve started keeping a gardener’s journal, so I can better track the progress of not only the seedlings in their race from the soil and towards the light, but also how much each plant produces, so when we’re staring longingly at seed catalogs next year, I have a better idea of which tomato plant it was that produced those delicious red orbs… and which ones cracked and had the tendency to drop off the branches without my help.  It’s also helping us better judge just how far overboard we’ve gone this year (72 tomato pants, 72 peppers, 27 eggplants… the grin just creeps over my face at the thought of sharing these young plants with friends and colleagues and then having pounds upon pounds of tomatoes for sauces and salsas). But, really, it’s also a tool to help us better understanding what we’re growing, where it came from, and how it’s been treated.

300+ Seedlings, Waiting for Spring!

As soon as the ground is workable, we’ll plow out another 25′ x 50′ bed to hold the cucumbers (20 seeds of a primarily pickling variety), spaghetti squash, butternut squash, melons and summer squash.  Though, this year, we also planted seedlings for flowers, in my ever frugal desire to cut the costs of my outdoor obsessions.

What are you planting this year?

Returning to the Garden

After a particularly long hiatus,  trip overseas, and first productive year of gardening, I’ve decided to try this blogging thing again.

My goals this year are pretty simple: blog the garden.  And what a garden it’s going to be!  My fiance and I have decided to, once the garden is in full production, try to make it a year without purchasing vegetables.  We’ve already purchased a large chest freezer for the basement, planted a variety of seedlings (for those plants that take longer), started collecting canning supplies, and fixed the pump on our well (at least it was a good time of year to have it go – if there ever is a good time of year).

In addition to our usual 25’x50′ vegetable garden, we’re adding 4 10’x10′ plots for squash, watermelon, potatoes and pumpkins, four high bush blueberry plants, 20 strawberry plants, Jerusalem artichokes, four raspberry plants, and we’re pruning the old transparent apple in the backyard, hoping to see some results.  We’re also expecting the delivery of 27 Buff Orpington chickens in about three weeks.

Our garden is still under a few inches of snow… but please come back, as spring has finally started to gain some ground here, and things will be turning green soon.