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 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


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 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!!