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"?


 noun \ˈmā-vən\
: one who is experienced or knowledgeable

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


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:


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

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


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!