Tuesday, December 18, 2012

If I Knew Then What I Know Now

So sorry to have been gone so long.  In the last post, I said I had been "under the weather."  Well, that's about like saying the Wicked Witch of the East was 'under the weather' when Dorothy's house fell on her!  While I bear no resemblance to any witch of any compass point, I could consider the name change of "Pitiful Planter of the South" or "Maven of Malaise."  Hmmm...whining is not attractive.  Let's move on...

The title of today's post is...If I Knew Then What I Know Now...
There were a few things I got right from the get-go.  There are plenty more that have been tweaked or outright abandoned.  That's the joy of this hobby / job / lifestyle.  There is always something new to learn or imagine.

  So here are some Things I Would Not Change.....
  1.  I would set up my garden in permanent beds and aisles.  If it is at all possible, I recommend the same to you. Even though weeds have gotten away from me once or twice in seasons past, having the permanent area allowed me to prioritize what to clear and gave me access all through the garden.  Having 100 square foot beds allowed me to plan easily for crop rotation and the number of transplants needed.  Including irrigation as we made the beds has been a huge advantage as the garden has grown.  Watering the garden consists of turning on the water - selecting a zone - and setting a timer.  I have 3 zones, so the entire garden is watered in an hour and a half.
  2. I would still choose to start my garden small - but mostly smart!  Year one I sacrificed one of my 100 square foot beds and planted asparagus crowns (along with some parsley).  I knew I wasn't really going to get asparagus for a few years - each year the beautiful ferns come back, but the shoots are not fat or plentiful enough for harvest. But boy! The wait is worth it!  This year all of us enjoyed full servings of fresh, flavorful, yummy asparagus.  It takes 2 bunches purchased just to give each of the Mavens a few spears - that's $7 in veggies alone!  Not going to happen too often, right? This year was celebrated as week after week we savored this special spring treat. Now, with a little fertilizer and weeding, I can expect decades of spring yumminess. Here's the other first year crop I would recommend:.....Peppers!  Green peppers. Hot peppers. Poblano peppers. Banana peppers. Any kind of pepper you like.  Pepper plants are not terribly bothered by pests - each plant gives you more than a dozen peppers and they save you a boat load of money! 
          Regular green peppers are a dollar each - and that's in season!  Red and yellow can be $2 each!  Ouch!  Here's the real joy - peppers can be frozen with almost no prep! Just slice, freeze on a tray to make sure it doesn't make a solid blob and then throw it in a freezer bag!  The next time you need pepper for fajitas ( or about a zillion other dishes ), you simply pull out the right amount and saute away!  I honestly can't tell the difference between fresh and frozen, but ohh, those months with fresh!  Here's a sampling of a batch that became beef kabobs last summer.  Yum, yum!  Okay - if you don't have a garden yet - how 'bout some pepper plants in a pot or in straw bales?
 Goodness, this is going long.  I have a whole lot more that I would keep the same, and a whole, whole lot more I would change!  I'll work on crawling out from under this house, and you work on getting excited about next year's garden!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mobile Chicken House

Sorry I haven't been with you lately, I've been a little under the weather.  But there's a whole lot more to talk about so today we're going to talk about mobile chicken houses.  In my post Eggs Defined, we discussed that eggs from hens that are allowed access to the outdoors are significantly lower in cholesterol and saturated fats while enjoying higher levels of Vitamins A, D and E.  One technique is to allow your chickens to freely roam the yard, but there are inherent difficulties with that.  First, eventually predators will find your flock.  How depressing to raise a group of girls to egg laying stage just to lose them one by one.  Secondly, they eventually see you as their protector and provider, so your porch feels safe and comfy to them (read yucky chicken poo on your porch).  Another risk is eventually finding a huge cache of eggs cleverly hidden in your bushes - not only have you missed out on those yummy eggs, you are in for a world of stink when you try to trim those bushes!

Enter The Maven Team. My son-in-law, the architect, is so patient with me as I try to explain my girls' needs.  (By the way, those of you who don't have my-son-the-_____, or my-daughter-the-______ yet, look forward to that day!  Having successful children is the greatest joy of all!)  Anyway, architects are trained to see the needs of people (or, in this case, chickens) and design a building around that.  My husband, the engineer, knows how to take a vision and make it a reality.

I was frustrated with designs I had seen online for a number of reasons: some held too few hens, some were too heavy to move easily, some were too flimsy, some required a lot of bending and reaching to load and unload food and water dishes.  I wanted the food and water to be self-contained, and I wanted the resulting coop to be secure and yet movable by little ole me. Today, I will show you pictures of the project in progress.  Many of you will be handy enough to build this coop with just these pictures.  I'll work with the ever patient architect to provide line drawings if you let me know there is a big need.  Here we go:

The end result to help you see the vision along the way!

First, we made a 4 x 8 rectangle out of  pressure-treated wood to go next to the ground, then made a second box from 2 x 3s.  We then made a 4 x 4 box to make the  'second story'.  The corners are 'glued and screwed' for stability, so you see the aluminum foil to keep the glue contained. 


Next, we separated the 2 large rectangles to make a 24"  high box.  We used the same 2 x 3s and 8" strips of plywood on the back to make the opening for the door.  You can see the scrap wood we used to hold the smaller square in place so we can measure in place to make the supports.  The roof is 48" high in the front and 41" in the back.  








Next, we added a plywood shelf to make the nest boxes.  Each box is 12 x 12.  You see here the lip in front to keep eggs from falling out.  You can also see one of the perches, made from a split 2 x 3. 

Here's where things got a little 'creative'.  We wanted a strong support for the wheels, so we added a 1 x 6 board on the left and right, then a filler 2 x 4 to make a solid wheel support.  This, in turn, made an attachment for a 2 x 3 used to support the waterer.  The waterer is a craft box with a snap lid and nipples attached underneath for the chickens to reach up and get the water.  11" is a little low, but the girls have been doing fine and the upper clearance allows you to lift the box in and out without damaging the nipples.  *Note:  stick with the Avian Aqua Miser brand - other, cheaper nipples might not drip well enough for your girls*
You can also see that we attached a scrap piece of wood to keep the box from sliding forward and to discourage the gals from perching on the brace and soiling the feeders.  The feeders are simply 2 rabbit cage feeders screwed into the back. They load from the top and hold a quart of feed each.  


Here's the whole back apartment showing the 2 perches, 2 waterers and 2 feeders.  We finished the back with vinyl siding to keep it lightweight. and covered the top with wavy poly vinyl.  Ask the guy at the hardware store about the vinyl edge pieces and corners, so you know how to finish your corners. I painted the exposed wood white out of pure pride-fullness. 



 We stapled on the chicken wire and attached the wheels with carriage bolts.  We had some ancient Yazoo lawn mower wheels that we spray painted blue, but Tractor Supply carries wheels of all sizes.  Here you can see the back flap made from 3/8" plywood and covered with vinyl siding.  I had a broom handle that I use for a prop to hold open the trap door while I add feed, gather eggs and slide out the waterers if needed.  You can see the supports for the waterers from this angle.  The wheels need to be a little lower - it pulls fine on a level surface, but is hard to pull uphill.  

Here you can see my happy gals munching on weeds.  The 2 8 foot poles give me enough leverage to easily move the house and the door in front is available if needed.  The gals walk along as I slide the house forward and they hop on the perches at night.

I absolutely think this is a viable way for people in the Southeast U.S. to keep 5 - 8 hens year round.  Other areas with snow fall may want to use this in the summer months only, but it allows you to have the 'pastured' eggs without the negatives of predator loss and chickens in your garden.  I'll come back to more particulars later (like adding additional light, choosing feeds, and using this system on a larger scale) because, as you know, there's always a whole lot more!  























Thursday, October 11, 2012

Creole Chicken Gumbo (low carb and gluten free!)

There are a few recipes that define a person.  The whole family waits with anticipation as the holidays approach because of 'Grandma's pumpkin pie' or 'Aunt Chloe's homemade rolls'.

The Maven has gumbo.  We moved to Northwest Georgia and discovered that people here did not not what gumbo was.  They made something called Brunswick Stew, which is kind of like bar b q soup.  So the record had to be set straight.

This particular recipe has a chicken base, so it is not too expensive. Generally, my 22 qt. soup pot is full to the brim with a single recipe, but it freezes well as the individual components or as a completed stew.  The traditional way to eat it is over rice, but I eschew the rice and garlic bread and leave those for the carb-eaters in the house.

There are four things to combine. Here ya go:

Okra
6 lbs frozen, sliced okra
1 cup vinegar (1/2 cup per pan)
2 tablespoons oil (1 tablespoon per pan)

Spread the okra out on 2 stoneware pans or broiler pans (no need to defrost).  Sprinkle the vinegar and oil over the okra and use your hands to spread it evenly over all of the batch.  Bake at 350 degrees F for 1 1/2 hours, stirring every 30 minutes.  Watch carefully if you use the broiler pan to keep it from scorching.

Roasting like this shrinks the okra and keeps it from falling apart in the broth.  The seeds look like little eye balls if they are floating all around!

Chicken and Broth
Boil 2 chickens in 1 1/2 gallons of water with
12 bay leaves
1 teaspoon liquid crab boil
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons Emeril's Essence seasoning (or your favorite cajun seasoning)
2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon red pepper

Simmer until tender. If you can, chill the broth to allow the fat to rise to the top so you can skim it off.  Pull the chicken from the bones and shred to pieces that can generously cover a spoon.

Veggies
3 cups chopped onions
1 bulb garlic, crushed
3 cups chopped celery
3 cups chopped bell pepper
1/4 cup bacon grease or oil

In Creole and Cajun cooking, this is called the "blessed Trinity" and is the basis of many dishes.  Saute the veggies in bacon grease or oil until limp.  (do a little dance if all of this came from your garden)

Roux - (pronounced 'roo')
1 1/2 cups bacon grease (or oil in a pinch)
2 cups flour - all purpose for you carb eaters - soy flour or coconut flour for low carb, gluten free or paleo eaters

(Note: here's the reason to go get that iron skillet you've been wanting - the roux is much less likely to burn with the even heat of nicely seasoned cast iron)

Mix the flour into melted bacon grease with a whisk.  It will look atrocious:

Cook over medium heat stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. (side note - those fingernails are gel paint and have lasted 2 weeks while gardening and building a new chicken tractor!)

Slowly the color will change as you continue to stir.  You are looking for one shade darker than peanut butter - something akin to a caramel candy.  If you need to, you can allow it to cool (I have even frozen it before).  If you are ready to assemble the gumbo, just let it sit a few minutes to allow it to cool a little - you don't want it to pop and burn you as you pour it in the soup. (I usually call for help and have Mr. Maven hold the skillet as I scrape out the roux)
Final note on the roux:  if it burns - throw it out!  There is no saving burnt roux!

Combine
Chicken and broth, veggies, okra and 2 - 28 ounce cans of diced tomatoes (not drained).  Add warm roux to warm soup and simmer 45 minutes. Add shrimp or crabmeat during the last 5 minutes if desired.   That's it!  Enjoy!  

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Bunnies in the Garden :(

Some times things don't go as planned.  A few weeks ago we saw pictures of spinach being planted at a 4" spacing.  Up they came.  One by one, away they went.  In no time, there was not a single baby spinach plant left.  (sad face)

No problem - we'll replant.  Only problem was the seeds were old and did not germinate.  (another sad face)

No problem - still time to replant and figure out if this was bunnies, deer, bugs or a dry spell.  I guess you figured out by the title the culprit.
---------------------------
I have a funky little dog named Ena.  We named her that so when we come home we can say, "Hi! Ena!"  (you may need to say that out loud to get the joke)  Anyway, Ena turns herself inside out to go out in the garden any time she sees me with my tool bag.  Once we get out there, she totally ignores me. Go figure.  At least the cats bask in the shade of the asparagus or okra and look on as if to say, "Very good, human, keep working."

Yesterday, Ena was sniffing about and suddenly I heard "SQUEAK!" - one bunny down.  A few minutes later, "SQUEAK!" - number two.  I'm not gleeful, I'm not distressed.  I didn't even know they were there.  I guess it's just Ena feeling like she is earning her keep.

Anyway, within minutes I found the evidence that would of showed me what to do even without my canine assistant.


I replaced the transplant, but what to do to protect it now?  I'd like to avoid fencing if I can in order to keep the garden inviting, so I have used a product called plantskydd (r) in the past.  It's pretty nasty stuff (smells like blood) and says you cannot spray it on a plant within 3 weeks of harvest, but unlike these bunnies, I have no intention of eating these broccoli leaves.

If my problem continues, I will put up row covers early and cover these babies with light weight insect blocking cloth.

Now, what to do with the spinach?  Replant. Move on.  Reset.  Here's the thing about the garden - just because you mess up, or miss a planting date, or have a deer (or a bunny) come in, - it doesn't mean the dirt stops being dirt!  You are not fired! We'll talk soon about checking germination rates in seeds and pre-soaking seeds for quicker sprouting time.  As always, you can tell: there's a whole lot more!  

Monday, October 1, 2012

How to Make Liquid Stevia

So - I've talked about being low carb since February of this year.  I've also talked about my thoughts on raising as much of my own food as possible.  One of the (minor) challenges a low-carber faces is choosing which alternative sweetener to use.  Because, let's face it, just saying you will never have a glass of sweet tea again in your life might just turn a few of us to the dark side.  Or a cappuccino.  Or ice cream.  Or pie.  Yikes!  I had better change this train of thought!

Wait!  I can have all of those things!  Frequently! Without guilt! Phew! That was a close one!  All I have to do is sweeten it correctly.  There are a multitude of choices in artificial sweeteners on the market - and just as many dire predictions of death and gloom if you use them.  As stated before, I'm not much of a doom and gloom kind of gal, but I did notice that my weight loss stalled when I allowed sugar alcohols (as in sugar-free chocolate) in my diet.  I also noticed a (very) slight uptick when I use the packaged granular sugar substitutes. Then I found out that the extra chemicals included to keep the packets fluffy contain carbs.  No fair!

Enter Stevia.  This is a South American herb that is used as the basis for the newer sweeteners like Truvia.  It has been used extensively in Japan for decades.  Our dear FDA has now seen fit to allow it in the U.S.(fellow science nerds can take a look at a pretty good article here). You can pick up drops at your local vitamin store to the tune of $15 for 2 ounces.  I picked some up and was pleased when one bottle lasted 5 months using is every morning in my coffee and fairly frequently in my iced tea.  5 drops were plenty for my coffee and 6 plenty for a big glass of tea.  Go ahead and get some so you can see if you like the taste (it was no challenge for me).

The real challenge is the price.  I am not going to put $10 worth of drops in an ice cream recipe I've never tried!

My research led me to growing my own stevia and making my own drops this year.  I grew 3 plants over 3 feet tall in my straw bales and 2 more in a regular garden bed.  I will need to protect them this winter, because they are not cold hardy, or of course I can start from scratch next year as well.  Here's the steps I used and the results (including the challenges!).

Step 1:
Cut down stevia shoots and slide the stems backwards down your fingers to pop off the leaves.
Step 2:
Wash them in a salad spinner


You can see that I have 2 different size leaves here.  I purchased the small-leafed variety as a transplant and grew the larger-leafed ones from seed.  Both did well, so don't worry about which kind you find.

Step 3:
Stevia leaves immediately after being covered with vodka
Take the washed leaves and smash them around a bit with scissors or your hands.  Place them in a large non-reactive bowl and cover with vodka.  Cover with a plate or saucer to keep the leaves submerged and leave them out on the counter overnight.  The next day you will have a green liquid in your bowl.
Stevia next day after soaking all night in vodka 
Step 4:
This is where things got a little out of hand for The Maven.  Multiple web sites had instructed to carefully heat the strained liquid without boiling in order to remove the alcohol.  I strained the mixture by placing a coffee filter in a large funnel and carefully heated my green liquid.  I dutifully cooled it down and tried it the next morning. HMMM... I'm not used to vodka in my morning coffee!  I promise - not all of the alcohol was gone.  

Step 4 (plan B):
I put the liquid back into my soup pot and slowly heated it again.  All the while I dutifully watched to make sure it did not boil (as multiple sites said that would make it bitter) - of course, I messed it up and let it boil.  Come on - really - would you have been able to keep something at about 180 for 30 minutes?
Dutifully cooled it again - no bitterness - but also not very sweet!  It took a tablespoon or more to sweeten my tea!
Step 4 (plan C):
Okay - time to ignore the instructions.  I happen to have a cute little slow cooker that is used to keep dips warm.  I filled it with my green liquid, cocked the lid a little to allow evaporation and left that sucker on until the stevia extract reduced by half.

  Tada!  Delicious drops at a fraction of the cost!  Now I can work on an ice cream recipe and not feel guilty about using an ounce or more.  I'm working on that ice cream recipe tomorrow.  Guess you know what that means - there's a whole lot more! 




Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fall Egg Production

If you have chickens, you've probably noticed their egg production dropping off lately.  Here's the reason:  chickens need about 14 hours of sunlight per day to stimulate their bodies to produce an ovum.  Last weekend was the Autumnal Equinox, which means the sun is hitting the earth straight on the equator.  You can look up sunrise / sunset times and see that the U.S. is receiving about 12 hours of sunlight per day right now.  This will decrease until December 21st, then slowly increase until the first day of Summer.

That shows us that for more than half of the year, your chickens do not receive enough light to make your eggs.  Now, chickens are cute and fun and all, but it's really not worth having birds that do not lay.  So - let's solve this problem.  You will need a electricity, a light of some sort and a timer. That's it!

Set your timer to turn the light on in the morning.  Extending in the evening can leave the chickies in abrupt darkness if you turn it off at night. The last thing we want is chickens with anxiety issues!  If you have a rooster - he will crow for the light.  Sorry.  Don't know how to fix that one.

Your rule of thumb needs to be that the light should be bright enough to read a newspaper.  Fortunately, here in the South the sun remains fairly high in the sky throughout the winter.  If you have the light come on between 3 and 4 a.m. and turn off about 8 a.m., you will still have enough light even in the shortest days of the year.  That is also the coldest time of the night, so a heat lamp will keep your chickies more comfortable.

Let's review - if you choose to have your chickens permanently in a movable pen, you will need to think about supplying electricity somehow from fall to spring.  Maybe park them by the house in the evenings and run a GFCI cord?  The other alternative is to have a winter house with electricity permanently available and only put them in their movable pen on nice days.

The light you choose is your choice.  I chose a simple outdoor flood light with a clamp-on fixture for its durability.  I have been known to bump into my light when working around the coop, and I don't want to risk   glass shards from a broken light or having mercury from a florescent bulb in the coop.

Pine shavings and chickens droppings on the floor will be breaking down continuously, creating heat.  You may need to cover open walls to protect the girls from sharp winter winds, but we have an advantage here in the South because our ground does not typically freeze, so the composting droppings create enough heat for them to get by.

We'll talk later about how to get your girls fresh greens through the winter, so you can still get the benefits of pastured eggs.  (see the difference here)  As you can see - there's still a whole lot more!




Monday, September 24, 2012

MAKING BABIES (no-not like that!)

So sorry to have been away this last week - I was chronologically challenged.  There is so much to talk about!  Fall is here and there is fall gardening, putting up summer tomatoes, making stevia drops, planning for spring - I keep telling you 'there is so much more'!  But today, we should talk about making transplants.  Here in the South, so many gardeners only purchase transplants to garden.  It's not a bad idea, either.  Spring temperatures beckon you to the outdoors and beautiful little baby squash plants beg to go home with you.  But let's take it to the next level and look at the benefits of 'making your own babies'.

Why aren't we seeing transplants at the home and garden store right now if it is the right time to plant?  Two reasons:  most fall plants (see here for a list) can be planted directly by seed, and the ones that need to be grown first as transplants (broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, cabbage) are all very picky and would never make it through the rigors of neglect that is found at the typical garden center.

But not for you - you will take excellent care of your babies (bad analogy - you only take good care of these babies until you eat them!).  Not only that - you are going to do this with very low investment!  Things you will need:

  1. A place to put a shelf - preferably with a waterproof floor below (basements are great)
  2. A shelf and a shop light fixture (I use 'daylight' fluorescent bulbs)
  3. A timer to turn off the light (they need about 6 hours of darkness at night)
  4. Transplant trays (choose from pots or trays)
  5. Seed starting mix
That's it!  There are expensive, fancy systems - but you will get started for much less!  Here's my setup:


I had to turn the light off on the upper level because there was too much glare for the photo, but you can see the plants are reaching up to the light.  The shelves are just leftovers we had and the shop lights (I prefer the upper one with no guard) are hung from little chains.  That makes them adjustable - they almost touch the brand new plants and then can be raised once the babies are bigger.  These babies are now ready to sit outside during the day to become acclimated to the weather.  I will be planting them in the prepared fall beds this week.

So - if this is so easy - why isn't everyone doing it?  Hmmm, good question...is it that we are an instant society and want instant gratification? Do the evil store owners know they can make a bigger profit from transplants as opposed to seed? Well, I have a hard time laying blame on anyone - especially since I have purchased transplants every year I have gardened - but I think mostly we are not familiar with the process and therefore shy away from it.

Here's where The Maven's past failures are going to give you confidence to move forward.  As you go to the gardening center, you will probably see systems with 'peat pellets'.  Avoid these.  I have only succeeded in making spindly, sickly babies when I use peat pellets.  We like chunky monkeys.  My favorite seed starting mix to date is 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 mushroom compost.  Vermiculite is a rock compound that has been heated to expand and hold water.  It's the white stuff you see in a potted plant.  Mix these together and moisten them. I store a stash of this in a Rubbermaid box so it is ready any time.

Here's the drill:

  1. Fill your pots or trays with the moist seed mix
  2. Use a pencil or leftover chop stick to put a 1/2 inch dent in the middle of the cell
  3. Drop in 2 seeds
  4. Water from bottom for trays, water gently from the top for pots.  Water with a liquid fertilizer every other time (I use kelp in order to stay organic, but any emulsion will work)
  5. Trim off the weaker of the 2 seedlings after 2 weeks
  6. If you have a protected area outside, move your trays out during the day for a week before you transplant into the garden 
That's it!  I will show some follow up pictures as the season goes on.  Come back to see the progression.  Pretty soon at your house you'll be saying, "There's a whole lot more!"

Monday, September 10, 2012

STRAW BALE GARDENING

I know - you think everything goes perfectly in The Maven's garden.  Bugs never enter,weeds never take over and the yield is out of this world!  Ha! Fooled you!  I write because I have had all of that go wrong and more!  So here is the confession...
                                 I stink - I fail - I'm pathetic - at growing tomatoes.

I have put in 2 beds (100 square feet each!) of tomatoes and not had enough tomatoes to put any up!  Not enough for a single pot of spaghetti sauce!  I have watched my plants die from blight.  I have have seen all of the various fungi, leaf spots, molds and other tomato afflictions up close and personal.  Most disheartening is when I watch precious little green tomatoes sit on the vine for weeks, not ripening.  Finally, they commit vegetable suicide and fall to the ground to be eaten by the bugs.  Failure, failure, failure.

So why can I talk to you today about tomato growing?  Einstein said the definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."  I think everyone should get to the end of each gardening season and be able to say - Well, that didn't work so well.  It means you tried something new.  You tried to solve last year's problem.

I had some new ideas this year that ended in epic failure.  But I had one new idea that has me excited. I had one new idea that will be a part of my garden for years to come.  I had one idea that gave me tomatoes!  Not just a few, mind you.  The picture shows only part of one day's harvest!  I have a handy dandy kitchen scale and weighed out 10 pounds of tomatoes in just one day!

For you science nerds out there - it is even a controlled experiment.  The messy result you see here is the straw bale bed.  I have another bed with tomatoes planted in the ground.  I added a tablespoon of Borax to each planting hole on both beds because I had decided that a boron deficiency was the reason for my sickly plants.  I did have a better yield in the standard bed than in years past.  But on the day I took this photo, I was unable to pick a single tomato from the standard bed!

That's the why - now the how - then we'll talk about who and when:
  • Place straw (not hay) bales in a line, square or whatever configuration you want.  
  • Sprinkle with fertilizer (organic all purpose is fine)
  • Cover with 3" of bagged compost - I used mushroom compost
  • Water heavily daily.
  • On about day 4, you should notice the bales heating up. This is from the active composting occurring. Last year, I stuck a meat thermometer in the bales and saw it go well over 100 degrees!
  • Continue to water.  About day 10, the bales should be cooled down.
  • Pull apart the straw and place in transplants.
  • Fertilize every other week with foliar fertilizer (more on that later)
  • Water generously through the season. Every other day during hot, dry times.  
Here are the benefits of straw bale culture:
  1. No tilling! No digging!  This would even work for renters - nothing but compost is left later!
  2. Solves weed problems without you losing your back muscles, commitment to organic practices or your religion!  I had an area at the back of the garden that was overrun with Bermuda grass. (Say grrr with me...)  I placed a thick layer of black plastic with 6 bales on top.  That area has now given me cantaloupes, stevia, thyme and a weed-free zone that will be my strawberry tower next year!  
  3. Solves reoccurring problems - like my pitiful tomatoes - that may be due to imbalances of minerals in the soil. The bales take your soil totally out of the picture.  (There will be more about how The Maven evaluates her soil problem)
  4. Very versatile!  You can grow tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, cantaloupe, basil, radishes, carrots, broccoli - pretty much anything but corn or potatoes.  
  5. Can be used to rebuild an old bed.  I placed the tomatoes in one of my oldest beds.  The soil got a rest and will be replenished as the bales break down
  6. Can be used to start a new bed.  2 weeks to start and a beautifully amended bed at the end of the season is a pretty good way to go.  
  7. Earthworms love it!  I spiked mine with standard fishing worms and some of my composting worms.  Anyone familiar with our Alabama or Georgia red clay is excited about lots of earthworms.  I'm pretty sure baby earthworms are issued hardhats before they venture out into our native soil!
So - if you are on the fence about starting a garden...maybe you could consider putting down 6 bales of straw next year and enjoy vine ripened tomatoes, gourmet baby squash, fresh basil and cantaloupes right from your own back yard!  I kind of think you'll never want to go back.  

Expect a lot more as I experiment with my own straw bales.  I plan to put one of everything in the back bed to see how it does until heavy frost.  I also expect to continue picking tomatoes until frost.  Happy sigh.  The Maven is truly happy.

  

Friday, September 7, 2012

Eggs Defined

Friday is "word" day - and boy do I have a lot of words for you!  Have you seen the egg aisle at the grocery store lately?  Man! There must be a million choices!  Cage free - organic - vegetarian - omega 3 - what does it all mean?  Is there really a difference?  Hold on. Those of you on the fence about getting chickens may just be swayed today.....

Regulations in the U.S. food industry are definitely skewed toward huge corporate agri-business.  Words don't always mean what you think they do once the bureaucrats get a hold of them.  Here's a run down of the grocery store egg collection:

  • CAGE FREE - chickens are not caged, and are allowed to roam in a large house.  Sounds great, right?  The problem is that usually thousands of birds are housed together which causes stress to the birds and sanitation problems.  Antibiotic use is common and even sometimes routine. 
  • VEGETARIAN - the chickens are still housed in the large houses. Their feed is strictly vegetarian (read 'grain only').  The chickens are not allowed outdoors at all because they are omnivores and would eat insects and grubs if they could.  
  • FREE RANGE - this is starting to sound good, right? In 'bureaucrat-ese' it means that the chickens have access to the outdoors some part of the time.  So if a house with 8000 birds in it has a 2 foot door and a small porch, the chickens are "free range". 
  •  ORGANIC - now we are getting somewhere, right?  Well, organic chickens can still be grown in the large houses and be completely grain fed.  The only difference is that the grain is organic and the animals must not be given antibiotics.
  • OMEGA 3 EGGS - still huge houses and stressed birds, but flax seed or fish oils are included in the chickens' diet. The omega 3 level is about 7 times higher than normal and Vitamin E is also increased.  
Well, that all sounds depressing, doesn't it?  Enter the homesteader.  She has a few birds which she moves around the pasture (or allows outdoors most of the time) and enjoys fabulous eggs.  How fabulous?  In 2007, Mother Earth News published a report that compared the nutritional data of pastured eggs with standard eggs.  Chickens allowed outdoors to eat grass, clover, insects, worms and grubs lay eggs that are significantly different than their grocery store cousins. Here are the results - compared to standard eggs, pastured chickens lay eggs that have:
  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more Vitamin A
  • 2 times more Omega 3 fatty acids (the good kind)
  • 3 times more Vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene (from the greens they eat)
  • 4 - 6 times more Vitamin D
When this news gets out, everyone is going to want pastured eggs.  Talk to your state congressman to see if selling eggs like this is allowed in your local farmers' market.  You'll sell out every time!  

If you just want a few chickens for yourself, seriously consider using a movable chicken pen to allow your girls access to grass and bugs.  You'll be glad you did!

P.S. - Mr. Maven just read this and said, "You have to say something about how great they taste!"  It's true - the taste is definitely different.  My shells are harder than regular eggs (from eating bugs?), my yolks are darker than regular eggs (the beta carotene) and of course the freshness can not be beat!  

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Loving My Low-Carb Lifestyle!

So...Wednesday is recipe day and I am working on some amazing grass-fed-beef-kabobs, but they aren't quite there yet.  Poor me, have to try them again!

I rearranged my order of posts to talk about the low carb lifestyle I've been enjoying since February of this year.  Just this week I encouraged 2 people to start up - so all of my enthusiasm is going to pour out right here!  Now - if you want to enjoy this post while munching a muffin, feel free!  No snide remarks from me!  Just don't make me eat a regular muffin!

You know I love lists, so here are some questions and answers that may help you if you have ever been curious about a low carb diet.

    • Why, Maven, why?  I had let my weight creep up and knew I had experienced success before using a low carb approach.  Multiple clinical trials have proven that "low carbohydrate"  test groups lose more weight more quickly than standard low fat diets.
    • I hated the low fat or portion-restricting diets I had tried.  I have a decent metabolism, so I can lose weight when I try, but I was miserable (and cranky, I'm afraid) when trying that route. Also, my weight bounced right back when the restrictions were over.
    • When it comes to bread, for me none is easier than a little.  I can munch on bread daily (and mindlessly).  My roommate in college once told me that I was the "sandwicheness person she had ever met"!  Some folks love sweets, some chocolate; I love(d) bread.  Removing it completely from my diet has completely taken the desire away - I'm not kidding when I say I do not miss bread!

    • Fine - you say with a little grumpy sound in your voice - so what can you eat?  Many, many things.  I can have any meat, eggs, cheese and most dairy, all but a few vegetables and a fair amount of fruit.  I eat yummy, beautiful food until I am full.  I don't get hungry.  I don't count calories.  I don't feel guilty. (at least about food)
    • Hmmph, you say - now is the bad part - what can you not eat?  The list is not too bad...bread, pasta, white potatoes, rice, cereals, corn and starchy beans and peas. Look at that list - isn't it mostly your 'filler' items on your plate?  Pasta may taste great, but it really doesn't add nutrition to your meal.  While it's great fun to smoosh the gravy all over your plate with a roll, the roast is the real star.  
    • To start with I limited fruit.  Now that I am at my goal weight, I have added berries and melons, but apples, dried fruit and oranges are a little too high in carbs to consume often. 

    • Don't I need carbohydrates?  Not really, you can do completely away with carbs and suffer no ill effects.  But that is not the point.  I eat carbs every day.  I just eat them in the form of nutrient-rich vegetables, rather than starches and grains.  Your body can adapt easily to burning fats for fuel.  As I have met my goal weight, I have increased my carb intake, but I stayed at 30 net carbs a day for months.  (It was during this time that more than one friend called me 'the incredible shrinking woman'!)

    • If I am interested - how do I start?  I recommend The New Atkins Diet and The South Beach Diet.  If you have heard of the Paleo Diet (caveman diet), it is basically the Atkins diet with no dairy and no artificial sweeteners.  I haven't found a book I love on that one. I have an easier time on Atkins because I can wrap my brain around the goal of the day (eat so-and-so-many carbs).  South Beach does a little rice and a little whole grains as you go along.  As discussed above, my character isn't quite that developed.  
    • What has low carb got to do with homesteading?  So glad you asked!  Look at what I eat - meat, lots and lots of veggies, eggs, berries and melons!  I can produce most of that!  I can eat organically and seasonally from my garden and have omega-3 eggs for breakfast all I want!  Even if you choose not to move on to producing your own meat or dairy, look at the items you will no longer buy at the store!
     Augh...time to get personal.  Did it work?  Yes - and in spades.  I lost 30+ pounds, have a good blood profile and am totally enjoying my new style of cooking and eating.  I purchased a huge cook book (but she uses a few too many artificial sweeteners for me) and I follow IBreatheImHungry.com for recipes and encouragement. Our menu variety at home is so great that recently one of our boys asked me if we could make an old favorite, rather than trying so many new things.  Functionally, my 'diet' works when I go out - any restaurant has a salad with meat on their menu and many places are offering cauliflower or zucchini strips to take the place of potatoes or fries.  You know what else?  I'm happy with my food.  Food is meant to be shared and enjoyed by family and friends. It is a pleasure God grants us to give us a reason to enjoy each other and ourselves.

So...if you are thinking it's time to drop a few pounds or your doctor has given you the 'talk', consider a low carb lifestyle.  I'm glad I did.  I could go on and on - but I'll stop here but there's a whole lot more!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Planning the Layout of Your Fall Garden

This week I have the pleasure of helping a dear friend start her first garden.  How cool to think we are starting in the fall!  Usually people are rushing to get going in the spring, really before the ground warms up enough to even plant the heat loving plants like peppers and tomatoes.

So what do we do?  Last week, we talked about planting spinach using a triangle to know how far apart to put the seeds.  This week, we are going to do an entirely different kind of garden.  My friend has 2 roughly 9 ft x 3 ft beds.  Remember, we stop at 3 feet wide so it is easy to reach across.  We are going to plant an array of winter veggies in these 2 beds.  We'll still measure with our triangles, we'll just mix and match the plants that go next to each other.

Enter the Garden Planner.  You can find this on a number of websites.  I happen to use Territorial Seed. You can play around with it for 30 days - go get your free trial by signing up here.  Here's the plan for Claudia's garden:


 Looks like a hot mess, doesn't it?  Click here and you'll see a full explanation of the plants, the spacing and the times to plant.  It's really not that complicated once you see each individual plant.

Now, how did The Maven decide what to plant?  Here's the fun part... The plants in the top bed all benefit from row covers and extended season techniques.  The bottom bed can be exposed with few ill effects.  As a matter of fact, the brussel sprouts and the kale taste better after a frost!

Of course, a lot of this will be eaten through the winter, so we will plan to replant anything that is gone in the spring.  Two full harvests before we plant the regular plants of summer!  Look at all the variety!  Think of how healthy you'll feel!  Think of what a pick-me-up it will be to have fresh veggies from your own back yard during the cold months of the year!

We'll talk later about row covers and winter gardening, but right now, just think of the possibilities. I guess you can tell - there's a whole lot more!!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Getting Started With Baby Chicks

So you are thinking about chickens, or you have already decided to proceed.  You'll probably belong to one of two camps:  either you will study and think and plan and draw up coop plans and research a zillion sites online (and on and on) - OR you want chicks NOW!

Well, either is okay.  If you want to study and get a good handle on everything before you start, you are in good shape and can plan to purchase or order chicks in the Spring.  If you want some now, you are not out of luck.  You can order babies online through about November.  Now is better than later, because we still have a few warm months left and you have the advantage of your chicks coming to maturity just as the days lengthen in the Spring.

Head out to the store and purchase a baby pool.  It will probably be on sale because summer is ending.  Then head to the feed store and get "chick starter", a chick feeder and a drop light for warmth.  Order a waterer with chicken nipples. Now, order your baby chicks.  There are a number of places to order online and you can spend a LOT of time perusing your choices - here's my recommendations:

  •  I have had good luck with Murray McMurray Hatchery in the past.  There's only one catch....you have to order 25 birds!  You can split an order with a friend, sell a few as they grow older or just enjoy selling a lot of eggs.  We'll talk later about using your chickens to cut down on flies for your cows, so 25 is not an unreasonable amount.
  • Deciding on a breed is not easy - I have gotten Buff Orpingtons (sweet and good mothers), Rhode Island Reds (kind of cranky) and everything in between.  Murray has an assortment called the "rainbow layers" that has white egg layers, brown egg layers and Auracanas which lay green eggs.  It makes it a little easier to figure out who is laying and is kind of fun to have green eggs.  If you plan to have them free range, you may want to consider Barred Rocks, as they are a little more hidden from predators by their coloring. Realize that heirloom birds do not lay as well as more recent hybrids. 
Now - how to set up.  Place your baby pool in a basement or garage where it will be protected.  Put about 3" of pine shavings in the bottom and hang your drop light about 12" above the shavings.  Place the chick feeder in and prop your waterer on two 4x4 blocks so the nipples hang down between the blocks.  When you place the babies in you will need to flick the waterer back and forth to attract the chicks' attention.  Pretty soon, they will all be reaching up to drink as you hear tick! tick! tick!

You now have 4-6 weeks to figure out their winter housing.  After that, they begin to lose their baby feathers and start scratching.  The resulting dust is nothing you want indoors!  If your little gals are able to jump out of the pool, you will need to make a circle of netting or cardboard around the perimeter to keep them in.

There is a plethora of choices in chicken housing.  Decide whether you want a movable or stationary coop.
Next week there will be more about house choices. See you then!  There's a whole lot more!




Monday, August 27, 2012

Planting your Fall Garden


Okay, let's say you have an amended bed to be a garden space right now and you want to get started. Whoo hoo!  Perfect timing!  Today we are going to talk about the myriad of options you have to direct sow.  Last week we talked about making a triangle to show you how closely to plant, so today we are going to plant spinach (yum, yum!) in a 4" spacing.  Here is a picture of my high tech way of making a triangle using a file folder.



I'm only going to plant 4 feet of spinach today, then I will plant more every 2 weeks.  That way, I can have yummy baby spinach longer.  Use your triangle to see how far apart to make your rows. Draw a line in the soil with a pointed tool. (I use a cobra weeder.) Then use your triangle to place 2 seeds per corner.  When they come up, you will mercilessly decapitate one of the seedlings with a pair of kid scissors.  Why? #1 - Planting 2 seeds pretty much guarantees that at least one will come up and you won't have open spots. #2 -   Leaving both can create crowding and weaken your plants.  #3 - The kid scissors are because I'm not so coordinated.

Here are some options of things that can be directly sown in your garden:
  • spinach - 4" spacing - August and September
  • lettuce - 12" spacing - continually as you use it
  • pac choi or joi choi - 12" spacing - September
  • carrots & radishes - 4" spacing - August
  • turnips - 6" spacing - July or August
  • kale - 18" spacing - September
  • swiss chard - 12" - September
  • winter squash - 6 feet apart - August
  • climbing peas - 2" apart on a trellis  - September

Okay - so your seeds are in the ground!  Smooth the little rows with the back of your rake and water well!  That wasn't so hard, was it?!  Our soil is warm, so the seeds should pop up quickly.  Next week we'll talk about making baby transplants and later we'll talk about protecting your plants as the weather turns cold.  If you don't know where to get your seeds or you just like to read, head to  http://www.territorialseed.com/ .

Come back later! There's a whole lot more!



Saturday, August 25, 2012

Why "The Homesteading Maven"?


ma·ven

 noun \ˈmā-vən\
: one who is experienced or knowledgeable
(http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/maven)

Well, it's Friday and my thought was that every Friday we would define a word that has to do with homesteading.  There are some funky ones out there, I tell ya.  But everything must have a beginning, so the best place to start is "Why Maven"?  The two words above say it well.  I have experience, that's for sure.  Experience at total failure some of the time!  I have had gardening beds overrun with bermuda grass, I have fought (and sometimes lost to) squash bugs, I have purchased tools that ended up being useless and I have purchased transplants that ended up being the wrong plant!

Good grief, Maven!  Don't you know when to stop?  Why are you still doing this at all?  Because I have also enjoyed having more peppers in my freezer than I can possibly use, I have loved the quiet mornings listening to the birds as I play in the soil, I have relished the challenge of solving problems with the animals or in the garden and I have served meals to my family that have been completely home grown!

I have a saying that I came up with.  You are welcome to use it:  "The best teacher is experience and the best experience is somebody else's!"  As the youngest in a large family, it kept me from many a spanking, I'm sure.  As a homeschooling mom, it allowed me to rely on other people's expertise in math, literature, history and science to graduate functional, well-educated adults.  As a homesteader, learning from others through reading gave me the confidence to attempt things I had never learned before!  Really, people, I'm a city girl!  I had never really been around a cow until I purchased my own!  Before this, my experience in gardening was solely in flowers and landscaping!

So here on The Maven, you can expect a lot of 'how to get started' - 'how to decide if this will work for you' - 'what are the problems that come along with blank' .  Hope that sounds like a useful thing to you, I'm having a blast sharing the joys and challenges of homesteading.

Winter is coming up and is a wonderful time to make plans for a new adventure.  Here are some of the resources I have found useful:

  • Salad Bar Beef by Joel Salatin - he breaks down the process of Management Intensive Grazing and empowers you to work with nature to manage your livestock
  • Weedless Gardening by Lee Reich,  How to Grow More Vegetables... by John Jeavons and The Winter Harvest by Eliot Coleman - the first explains the concept of using beds and aisles, the second sells you on the idea of planting intensively and the last is all about season extension.  
  • Territorial Seed Company catalog - their planting guides are helpful and the pictures are lovely
So, there we are.  I guess 10 years of this means I have experience.  Reading other people's work has made me a little knowledgeable. I'll be working to apply that knowledge and experience to the unique situation of homesteading in the South.  Come on back!  There's a whole lot more!






Thursday, August 23, 2012

Raising Your Own Meat

The Third Level in homesteading is raising your own meat. Today we'll chat as if you are in the 'Can I imagine doing that?' stage.  Check out the front page that says "Four Levels in Homesteading" if you haven't already. If you have a few acres, you can consider raising animals specifically for meat. Here's a question and answer format to help you think it through.


  • How can I possibly eat an animal I have met personally?  Augh!  Will the children ever stand for it?
    • First of all, you will eat them while making num num noises.  My beef is more tasty, more tender and more nutritious than anything I can buy.  
    • Secondly, kids tend to get it - the meat in the package came from somewhere, right?
    • Lastly, and most importantly, make the end result evident from the beginning.  You are welcome to any of our cow names .....Sir Loin, Brisket, Chuckie, Patty, Stroganoff, and Stu to name a few.  I have three on the way and would love some suggestions for future names. (Keep it clean, though.)
  • Is it a lot of work?
    • Well, yes. It kind of is.  All livestock need fencing and require rotation through paddocks or pastures to get a good quality 'grass finished' product.  
    • You will need a way to get them loaded onto a trailer and transported to your butcher.  Obviously, a smaller animal like a goat will be easier than a cow.
  • Can I make money at it?
    • I have no trouble selling shares of my beef.  My butcher is inspected, but I am not, so in effect my customers are buying a quarter of the entire cow.  
    • Goats and sheep are going well all around the country - here in the southeast, I hear much more success regarding goats rather than sheep.
  • Where do I learn more?
    • I would recommend anything by Joel Salatin as a baseline to understanding how to raise pastured pork, beef, or hens for eggs.  
  • Why should I even consider doing this?
    • Research continues to confirm that grass or pastured animals provide meat that is lower in cholesterol, higher in Omega 3's and lower in calories. If you are a true science nerd, you can see that even our government agrees here. 
    • It'll make you a real farmer - although I have to admit I do things differently enough from the standard way that I tend to raise eyebrows when I talk about my cows.
It's a lot to think about and a big commitment too, but I have thoroughly enjoyed my cows and look forward to adding a couple of pigs next year.  So far, we have only butchered old hens, but even that wasn't so bad.  What I do know is that the demand for grass-fed, organically raised beef is rising as people become more informed.  Think about it....

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Frittata

Vegetables from your own garden and eggs from your own chickens!  This has the makings of a wonderful start to the day!  A few months ago, I transitioned to a low-carb lifestyle.  I had lost weight on a low carb diet 15 years ago and knew it worked, but wasn't sold on it as a long term lifestyle.  My husband's cholesterol and my tight pants pushed me over the edge.  Enter the New Atkins diet.  Much is the same; you still limit carbs and enjoy proteins and fats, but the new version emphasizes vegetables from day one.  Yay!  I like that!  Here's a recipe that is endlessly flexible to get some veggies in at breakfast:

FLEXIBLE FRITTATA FOR TWO

First thing - set oven to low broil
3 eggs
1 1/2 Tbl. sour cream
salt/pepper to taste
1/2 cup leafy vegetables or 1/3 cup baby squash
olive oil for sauteing
1/2 cup cheese, shredded


Saute fresh spinach or squash that has been cut into 1/2 in chunks in a non-stick saute pan.  Cover pan for 2 minutes to allow veggies to soften.  While vegetables are softening, whisk the eggs and sour cream until you can no longer see chunks of sour cream. Pour egg mixture over the softened veggies and add salt & pepper to taste.  Use your spatula to lift the edges of the eggs as they begin to set so uncooked egg will run underneath.  When the bottom has set but the top still needs to cook add the cheese on top.  Place the whole saute pan under the broiler for about 3 minutes.  Remove when the cheese is beautifully brown.  Cut into 4 wedges for ease of serving - 2 wedges each for a serving.

Combinations that have worked in The Maven's kitchen:

  • leftover sauteed baby squash & monterey jack
  • spinach, garlic & chunked fresh mozzarella
  • baby tomatoes, garlic, chopped bacon & cheddar
  • 1" asparagus pieces & feta 

Starting Out With Chickens

So you think you'd like to get some chickens so you can have fresh eggs?  Great idea! Even if you live in city limits, many municipalities allow 5 hens per household.  Chickens are fun and funny and the eggs - mmm, mmm, mmm.  We'll talk about what your chickens need, how many is enough and how to automate their care so they don't become a burdensome chore.
I love lists, so here it is.  Your chickens need:

  1. Water.  Duh.  But the standard way is not the best way.  The standard way is to have a metal bucket that let's a little water out at a time.  Sounds great, until your chickens jump on it and get poop all in it. Yuck!  Take a look at the Avian Aqua Miser.  You can purchase the little chicken nipples by themselves or already made into waterers. Those of you that aren't even interested have to go now just to find out what on earth a chicken nipple could be! 
  2. Food.  Baby chicks eat chick starter and laying hens eat layer pellets.  Organic feed is hard to come by because organic corn is pretty much no longer grown on an industrial basis in the United States.  I have decided to give my gals the best feed I can get and give them damaged fruits from the garden and access to grass and bugs. It's cheap redneck entertainment to find a grub in the garden, throw it to the chickens and watch all the others chase the one that scoops it up. (Hmmm, I might need to get a life!)
  3. Perches.  Adult chickens like to sleep above the ground.  You'll need 12 inches of perch per hen, but most likely they will crowd up in a much tighter formation.  I imagine it's the chicken version of  a sleepover - "YOU sleep on the outside, so the monster will get you first!" 
  4. Protection.  Speaking of monsters, chickens need protection from predators.  All the carnivores in the world are out there saying, "Yum, yum! Tastes like chicken!"  Your biggest decision will be whether you want a movable chicken coop, a stationary one, or a combination of both (movable coop when the grass is growing and a house through the winter).  There is a plethora of choices and ideas online, but if you want a movable pen, hold on! I have free plans coming soon that just might knock your socks off!
So how many?  If you choose heavy breeds, such as barred rock or wyandottes, you can expect 5 brown eggs a week.  The math is pretty simple, if you want 2 dozen eggs a week it will take 5 birds.  Sometimes you'll have extras, which will endear you to whomever you choose to bless with the extras.

Your chickens on auto-pilot:

  1. In a house, lay down a 3-4" layer of pine shavings to take care of the droppings.  Add more when it gets nasty or muddy. In the past I have let it build up for two years before scooping out the house, and what a fine garden amendment it was!
  2. Choose waterers and feeders that hold a good bit of food / water.  The daily chore is mainly gathering eggs!


Monday, August 20, 2012

Planting Intensively

So you've taken the plunge and decided to start a garden.  Hopefully that means you have made 2 or 3 beds no wider that 4 feet and no longer than 32 feet like we talked about here.  You have dirt with high organic content that is easy to dig. Now what do you do?  As a beginning gardener, it is perfectly acceptable to go to the garden store and buy transplants.  But how many?  Where do they go?
Don't worry. The Maven will help.  Walk like you are an expert straight over to the seed packets and pick one up.  Let's say you want to grow some bell peppers. Excellent idea! Peppers cost an arm and a leg in the store, the plants give huge yields and are resistant to insects.
The seed packet says to plant the peppers 18" apart in rows 3-4 feet apart?  Why?  Because the pepper plants need 18" between them to not compete with each other for sunlight and the humans need 2 or 3 feet to walk between the rows.  But wait, Maven, we don't have rows!  We have beds!  Ahhhh... you catch on fast!  We are going to fill up  our bed with pepper plants!  (Of course, if you have long beds that may mean only a few feet of your whole bed.)  Why? Here's some great reasons:

  1. The yield goes sky high!  With 3 foot wide beds, you can plant 5 plants in the first 4 feet! The same 5 plants would take 8 feet in a single row, plus the tilled up aisles on either side.  To much wasted space and too many...
  2. WEEDS!  Planting your beds intensively, then mulching your baby plants with straw keeps the weeds way down! By the time your plants are full grown, the tops will be touching and shading the ground, which keeps weeds at bay and saves on ...
  3. Water.  Using an irrigation system or a soaker hose allows you to water the plants, and only the plants!  No need to water the aisles and make mud. Or happy weeds.
That's the why, here's the how:

  1. Make a triangle.  Get out your kid's Geometry book so you can remember how to bisect a line... No wait.  That really doesn't fit in this blog, does it?!  Cheap and dirty way...If you want a triangle 18" on each side, make 3 strips of paper 20 or so inches long.  Put a mark at 18" on each strip. Line up your 3 strips until all sides and angles look even.  Tape this together.  Place your pattern over a piece of tough paper and draw the shape.  Cut out and mark "18".  
  2. Take your triangle out to the garden to help you know where to plant baby plants or seeds.  I've shown you a picture here with okra, because it is so easy to see.  
  3. See how the okra is at 2 plants across, then 1?  The plants are still the right distance apart, it's just they are not in a line.  Cool, huh?  
  4.   Repeat the triangle game with 12", 6" and even 4".  You can use it to plant any seeds or transplants.
Well, you are off to a good start.  See you soon, there's a whole lot more!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Getting a Garden Started

A CLEARED BED READY FOR FALL PLANTING
Okay. So we talked about gardening in the south and the problems of the 'old-school' way.  Don't sit paralyzed in the "oh, no!" mode.  There are just some new concepts to understand along with a not-so-huge investment of work and materials.  Getting started right leads to much less work in the future.  Intrigued?
Here we go!

  • Think small and ultra productive - We are not going to till up a half and acre. I recommend beds (or boxes or containers) that are 3 to 4 feet wide with aisles on either side. We'll talk about how much in a minute.
  • Amend, amend, amend - This is the single most important thing! If you have clayey or sandy soil as much of the south does, you will need to change the composition of your soil.  Here are the hows and whys:
    • Clay soil packs so tightly that oxygen cannot get to the roots of your plants.  It become waterlogged when wet and immovable when dry. Usually clay soil has plenty of minerals, but they are not available to the plants because no little to no organic breakdown is happening. Sandy soil allows water to flow through and has plenty of oxygen, but is sadly lacking in important minerals and organic matter.  Fortunately, the same remedy works for both extremes!
    • That's the 'why' in a nutshell.  Here's the 'how':
      • Pick a spot - you want at least 8 hours of sunlight a day, a place convenient to your house and devoid of tree or bush roots.
      • Remove current vegetation - no tilling under future weeds!  You can scoop the grass and weeds up, or smother them with your amendments for the winter and start in the spring.
      • Lay out amendments on top of your new area - they are easy to get at a garden center.  For each (approximately) 100 square foot bed (for example, 3 feet wide by 32 feet long) you'll need 2 sq ft of peat moss, 2 bags of compost, and 2-3 bags of 'soil conditioner' (this is decomposed wood chips usually). 
      • Till or manually work that in. Ask around to try to borrow a tiller. Rent a tiller. Do-Not-Buy a tiller!  This will be the last time you use it! You want to work down at least 12 inches.  That's a real challenge in rock hard clay! Till on a day when the soil is not saturated, but you can moisten it a little if you are in the 'brick mode' with red clay.
      • Form your edges and a barrier for your aisles. My edges are made from landscaping timbers.  Since 1993 arsenic has not been used to preserve the wood (so they are safe) and I have had timbers last over 10 years even though they are in contact with the soil (so they are cost effective).   My aisles are 24" with landscape cloth and pea gravel, but you don't have to go to that extreme. Plastic edging and wood chips would look nice, thick layers of straw would work, even old carpeting would work...just something to keep the weeds from leaping with reckless abandon into your new, fertile zone!
      • Let it rest a little - give all that organic matter a few weeks to start decomposing. Get a soil test a week into your new adventure to determine your soil pH.  Pretty much everyone in the southeast of the U.S. will have acid soil, but take a sample of soil to your county extension agent. They will send your soil sample off for testing which will let you know how much lime to add.
      • Check for newly germinated weeds.  All of that tilling and the fresh addition of nutrients will encourage dormant weed seeds in the soil to pop up.  Yank them to the sound of "Ha! Die, weed! Die!"  (Okay, that last step can be done quietly, but I don't think it will be as much fun.)
    • How many boxes?  That is mostly up to you. Just 2 beds could provide produce year round and supplement your table.  You can always add more later.  The maximum I would recommend for a newbie to this way of gardening would be 5 beds.  We'll talk later about planting intensively and making the most about those square feet.   
    • There's lots more!  See you later!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

GARDENING IN THE SOUTH

Welcome to The Homesteading Maven!  This is a chance to talk about gardening, raising chickens for eggs, cooking wonderful food and even putting meat on the table straight from your own backyard.  Just so you'll know - we'll take a natural, organic approach that is sustainable and recognize that no one wants to spend hours in the heat day in and day out just to eat.
I live in the South, so my discussions about gardening and livestock will relate to the challenges, opportunities and specifics of southern homesteading.  That being said, a chicken is pretty much a chicken, whether in Georgia or Maine, so a lot of what we discuss will be useful to anyone.
Specifically, I would like to break the old-school way of gardening that has tried to mimic other areas of the country but really doesn't work well for us Southerners.  For instance, the common practice is to 'put in' a garden by having a huge area tilled up and then plant long rows of things like pink-eye-purple-hulls and crowder peas.  Of course, there would be a long row of tomatoes (probably the only reason Mom stayed motivated enough to do this more than one year) and possibly there would be some peppers.  Here's the problem(s) with that...

  1. Most of the soil in the deep south is extremely poor.  I have gardened in Alabama, the Gulf Coast and now in north Georgia.  In Alabama, I had a red clay that vacillated between a brick-like state when it was dry to play dough when it was wet.  On the Gulf Coast, the problem was sandy soil that had no ability to hold water or nutrients.  Here in Georgia, my garden area soil started as something akin to grey baby powder.  Never quite seen anything like that before...
  2. We live in an area of the country with invasive (read huge, nasty, overwhelming, jungle-like) weeds.  I am a science nerd at heart, so my interest in gardening and homesteading has taken up a lot of my reading list.  Books from other parts of the country will say cute things like, "keep grass growing between your beds to allow earthworms to live there". Ha! Can you imagine wading through grass and seed heads as high as your pepper plants?  Can you imagine even being able to find your pepper plants?
  3. So many of the traditional garden choices grown in the South are labor intensive.  Shelling peas and beans took hours.  Maybe that was fun when there was no air conditioning or electronics or moms working outside the home or soccer practice or (insert your busy choice here). Then again, it probably wasn't that much fun even then.  And what did you get for your labor?  A product that sells for $1.69 for a three pound bag.  That's not going to make the cut for a busy mom or dad with a full time job and today's busy, busy lifestyle.
  4. And here's the big one... Southerners rush to put in a garden of heat-loving vegetables first thing in the spring. Why? Because people in Wisconsin have a short growing season and have to put transplants in as soon as possible in order to have any hope of getting a harvest.  When's the last time you met an old-school southern gardener that grew cauliflower? celery? broccoli? even cabbage?  Maybe never.  Let's take advantage of our long growing season and mild winters, garden year round and eat a delicious variety of fresh vegetables straight from our own yards.  
  5. I could go on and on, but this is plenty to digest today.  What did Mary Poppins say?  "Enough is as good as a feast." Don't worry, there will be a lot more. 
See you soon!