Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Chick update, mid spring in the garden, and rats

Our new chicks are getting bigger and three of them are nearly completely feathered.  We are down to five now (one of the bantam chicks died, and though we don't know for sure, we think it might have been a freak accident involving a boisterous large chick who is prone to step/jump on the small ones).  I'm beginning to suspect that four of them are boys.  I'm certain about two of them, and am tending towards it with two more.  Of the last I'm unsure at this point;  it's the smallest and weakest chick, however, and is only now (at seven weeks) growing some feathers.  I hope it's a girl;  we don't want to have to eat everybody! 

The three big chicks are all still very friendly and curious;  one of them really enjoys sitting on our hands and getting comfy.  Another--the boisterous chick--always comes barging over when we come by, and when we offer treats the strong tiny chick is the first to rush up and grab some;  it can run right underneath the big chicks.  The little weak chick runs away crying if we open their box, or even look at it.

And now on to gardening.  Last year I sowed sorrel seeds and we enjoyed a moderate harvest in the summer.  A perennial, they began shooting up again last month, and I'm amazed at the growth on them.  They are a bit too sour when cooked plainly, but chopped and added to a tomato sauce, make a great veg addition.  It's so nice to have a vegetable from the garden at this time of year!  We've had sorrel a couple times a week for a few weeks now.  Franklin likes to pick and eat them fresh. 

It's not the first vegetable of the year though.  I have harvested a couple leeks, which were sown last spring too;  I still have around a dozen left, but it's about time to get them out of the bed to make room for my beans.  I also have some leftover chard, cabbage (greens, not heads), and of course the rhubarb, all of which have been sampled this spring.
Patio gardening
In the midst of the spring gardening rush, I now have most of my seeds sown, and lots of seedlings planted out.  I have plenty of peas on the go--2/3 of them are planted out now, with the last 1/3 ready for planting;  the oldest batch is about 9 to 12 inches tall.  I'm using my wooden raised bed on my patio as a seed bed temporarily, with vegetables and herbs coming up like crazy.  It's just a mass of greenery at the moment.  I've been moving them out (and eating some of them straight, like the arugula).  In a week or two, I'll plant it with squash and cucumber, I think. 

My onion sets are coming along beautifully, and I have carrot seedlings popping up in my two big planters.  My beet seedlings in the ground seem to be still alive (they were badly mauled last year by slugs).  I bought extra seeds as a precaution. 
Onions growing nicely
I also have new strawberry and asparagus plants out, both from seed.  I still have a few older strawberry plants (two years old maybe?) but my original asparagus died a lingering death several years ago.  I probably got about 20 spears in total from ten plants--over about five years.  Hope these new seedlings are more successful...

And of course, I've got flowers coming up everywhere.  I've planted out about 10 different kinds of flowers grown from seed (marigolds, cosmos, nicotiania, clary, etc), and have plenty of familiar faces blooming now:  tulips, iris, bluebells, honesty.  My two cherry trees are covered in blossom, as is the berberis (an amazing orange), my new Asian pear, the two apples, and the red and black currants.  My plum tree flowered for the first time and is forming tiny fruits;  I'm very excited about it and about the little almond tree.  Last year we got our first almond harvest (25 nuts) and the tree looks much more full and leafy this year.  And there are two little figs forming on my tiny fig tree! 
Main veg garden with white cherry blossom and red tulips
One unwelcome addition to my garden, however, is a family of rats.  We had seen them helping themselves to chicken food, so have taken some measures to discourage them:  chickens no longer have free access to food, but get three supervised meals a day (and all the grass, weeds, and bugs they can find).  Kitchen scraps go into a covered compost bin and not an open pile.  We have raised the hen house slightly, so a curious cat can fit under it:  an eyewitness (that's me) saw a neighboring cat catch a rat next to the house.  This cat has been a regular visitor, and it has made at least one other suspected--though unverified--catch.  Hopefully without an easy source of food and with the help of that thoroughly excellent feline, the rats will move on.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

We're doing it again: chicks

It's that time of year:  we bought chicks from a local breeder just over two weeks ago.  We had a rocky start, with a couple fatalities, but now have six chicks in our kitchen.  Like last year, we will be keeping the hens and eating the cockerels, but unlike last year, we don't know which is which just yet. 

We have three big chicks and three little bantams, and the big ones are growing quickly and getting some good feathers now, at nearly 3 weeks old.  The bantams are much smaller, but all have grown a little since we got them.  Our biggest chick is about four times bigger than the smallest!  And has lovely feathers and markings, and I suspect may turn out to be a boy...But everyone is presumed female until proven otherwise, so we refer to them all as "she" and have given them girls' names.  I just hope at least two are hens!  Actually, Partner thinks he might know someone who wants a cockerel for breeding, so we shall see if one gets a reprieve after all.  We simply can't keep cockerels because of our neighbors. 
three day old chicks
Though we don't know the reason for our early fatalities, we believe the first one got chilled (it died the first night).  For the others, I suspect the chick feed--it may have been too big for such small beaks, as further observation showed the little ones having real trouble picking the pieces up and swallowing.  But it may have been something else entirely (Partner's not convinced it was the feed);  we changed to a different feed (smaller pieces), gave them grit, and have been monitering their brooder temperature closely.  We haven't had any more deaths since (knock on wood);  it was certainly very distressing to lose them so early, and not even know the reason.

By getting new chicks I want to ensure a regular supply of eggs--produced most reliably by young hens.  I hope to make a yearly addition to our flock with new chicks, to keep our egg supply constant.  Of course, there will come a time when we are at capacity;  when this happens we plan on eating the oldest hens, to make space for new layers.  This will also give us a source of healthy, naturally raised meat.  I anticipate this happening in another three or four years.  I also anticipate it will be difficult, even more difficult than killing our young cockerels.  But that's life:  everything dies someday, and everything becomes food for something else. 

I would like to note: all our adopted rescue hens will be allowed to live out their natural lifespan and will not be eaten.  Though not explicitly stated, this is implicit in our agreement to adopt them from the hen charity.  We currently have 7 rescue hens;  they typically live around 1-3 years.  

But back to our new chicks!  They're all very cute, very curious, and all different colors and markings;  it's easy to tell them apart.  We don't know what breeds any of them are, other than big and small.  They don't like being picked up, but all willingly jump onto our hands if we offer them food;  I was hand feeding them earlier today, and a small one jumped onto my hand and promptly fell asleep! 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Harvest totals

Main veg garden (Brussels and daffodils and mulch!)
I did it:  I tallied up my garden totals for 2015 and the grand total is 66 pounds* of garden fruit and vegetables.  This includes kale, chard, cabbage, potatoes, zuccini, pumpkin, runner beans, climbing beans, salad greens, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, and cherries.  It does not include peas, herbs, almonds, strawberries, blueberries, blackcurrants, or apples--or truthfully most of the tomatoes too.  I estimate there would be about 8-10 more pounds with the above included (mainly due to the apples and tomatoes). 

*Note:  this is prepared weight;  I weighed everything after trimming/peeling/chopping/etc. 

The most prolific producer was by far the runner beans, producing just under 16 pounds!  The second best producers only came up to about 8 pounds:  kale and zuccini.  I actually couldn't believe I got that much kale, but according to my records, just before the caterpillar blitz, I was picking up to 13 oz a day.  We didn't manage to eat a full 13 oz a day:  some got frozen.  Surplus runner beans were both frozen and salted. 
Ninja!  I made this costume out of bits and pieces, including the applique dragon badge
So far this year I have harvested one leek and some (forced) rhubarb, both weighing in at 5 oz.  I never tried forcing rhubarb before--I put a big upturned black bucket on top of the plant in January and weighed it with a couple bricks so it wouldn't blow away.  I left it for about six weeks and then picked the biggest stems--about a third of them.  I wasn't sure if I should keep forcing it, so I left off the bucket after that harvest.  We had the stems in a stir fry and they were beautifully tender and not too sour. 

Hot bed on my patio
I've started sowing seeds in earnest now, both vegetables and flowers, and some are popping up.  I have a new raised bed/giant planter made of wood next to my house.  It used to be our sofa!  Then it became Franklin's bed frame;  now it's loaded with chicken manure and compost and has seedlings emerging rapidly.  The idea is the chicken manure heats it up from underneath, and the glass shower door (remember it?  it's still here) holds the heat in, encouraging early growth.  I put lots of seeds in it, but typically did not label the rows...  No matter;  I'm pretty good at recognizing seedlings, and I'll transplant to the main garden when large enough, and hopefully grow pumpkins and/or cucumbers in the bed later in the year.  

Will this be the year I finally achieve my goal of producing all our vegetable needs for the whole year?  Watch this space!

(When I took my camera out to the garden I couldn't find much of interest.  But in the interests of Not Pretty I figured some realistic photos would do.)

Monday, February 29, 2016

2015 food garden review: discussion and conclusions

My 2015 garden review:  I'm completely unabashed about my lack of photos.  I know it's more fun with photos, but we're just going to go with it.

This winter has been pretty mild so far.  We've had a few more frosts than last winter (which had a few more than the winter before).  I like some good hard frosts to help kill off excess slugs.  Two summers ago we had a plague of them.  Last summer we had an infestation.  Hopfully this coming summer we'll be back to normal proportions.  I can handle slug bites in my vegetables;  it's repeated vegetable fatalities which are hard to accept.  Last summer they demolished all my attempts at root crops and cabbages.  It was dreadful, but at least it was better than 2014, when they killed everything I put in the ground.  I'm not even exaggerating.  Only a few things in my planters and two (small) raised beds managed to survive.

I decided it's no longer worthwhile to direct seed into the ground--because of slug pressure.  Mainly I have direct seeded root and salad crops in the past (up until several years ago this was fairly successful for me).  This year I will be transplanting lettuce, beets and celeriac, sown indoors in trays, and direct seeding carrots into planters.  I've grown carrots in planters before, mainly to avoid carrot fly.  Though not as big, any carrots are better than none.  My two other root crops are onions and garlic;  I planted garlic in November, and it's happily growing away, and I will soon be planting out onion sets.

My pumpkins really benefited from the heavy application of fresh and semi composted chicken manure, producing loads of growth.  However, having them in the ground saw them produce mainly vines at the expense of fruit.  I harvested one medium pumpkin, and plenty of immature ones (picked off to encourage older ones to grow big, and eaten as zuccini).  My one zuccini plant (the slugs killed the others) also had liberal amounts of chicken manure, but was more generous with fruit;  I estimate I picked about a dozen altogether.

Runner beans were planted near the pumpkins and zuccini, with a similarly generous harvest (while attempting to remove their supports yesterday, I discovered that their roots--little tubers--are still alive under the soil.  Maybe they'll grow again this spring?).  We had enough to eat fresh, and also freeze and salt.

Of my four or five volunteer potatoes, we had a great harvest!  I hadn't expected to get any potatoes, not having planted them in 2015, but we ate them fresh for about two months:  they were good sized ones, good flavor, and almost no potato scab (an issue in the past).

Kale and Brussels sprouts were hard hit by caterpillars in late summer, and did not recover well before it turned cold.  I got a few good harvests of kale, both fresh and for the freezer beforehand, but the sprouts weren't ready at that time, and we only got one meal off six plants this winter.  The chickens were allowed to self-harvest the remains after we'd had ours for Christmas dinner, though the plants themselves are still alive and trying to produce a few more sprouts.  I may let them go to seed.

Mostly unaffected by pests were chard, tomatoes, and peas.  Chard was big and beautiful, and some is still growing now;  we had it both fresh and frozen.  I picked my last ripe tomato on Christmas day;  it was growing in my uncovered raised bed next to my house.  There were still a few more orange ones after that, but the slugs found them before I did.  Tomatoes gave only a modest harvest:  enough for eating fresh, but not enough to preserve;  though a few seeds were saved, too.  I think the peas survived better than many others because they were planted quite early before pests were very active.  We mainly ate them fresh, but I also saved about 100 seeds (and the first 35 have already been sown). 

Leeks have been very slow growing, and still not very big!  I harvested the first one (sown from seed last spring) earlier this month.  At least they were not troubled by much.

The chickens have remained a reliable source of food all year;  of our chicks, raised last spring, we ate the six cockerels;  they were about two-three months old when they began crowing.  We killed them over a period of about a month:  the last three we did all on the same day, which was both easier and harder than doing them one at a time.  Two went into the freezer.  We used nearly every part of all them, including most of the innards (other than the gallbladder and digestive system).  The bits we didn't use went into our compost bin (head, feet, and the remains of the bones after making stock).  The pullets began laying regularly since late summer, and continued all through winter.  One was even laying double yolkers.  We currently have eleven chickens, seven of which are rescued hens.

Of fruit, my gallon of morello (sour) cherries in the freezer made a sumptuous cherry pie, following a recipe from the Joy of Cooking.  We had about two dozen gorgeous red Sparta apples, and a few gold/orange Laxton Fortune apples.  There were five Kordia (sweet) cherries, and 25 almonds which went into our Christmas stollen bread.  And two amazing figs, even if some other small creature had the first bite off them (the tree is just over knee height).  I told Partner it was probably a bird, but between you and me it was more likely a rodent...don't worry though, I washed them really well.  We had a few handfuls of both strawberries and blackcurrants, nearly all of which disappeared down Franklin's throat (he also got most of the peas!).

I recorded nearly all of my vegetable harvest last year by weight, though some things were missed off, including things like tomatoes and peas which we just picked and ate.  I didn't record fruit harvest either, other than the morello cherries.  Right now, that data is stuck to the side of my fridge on several sheets of notebook paper.  Time to organize and tally it up, I think.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

December garden (and my applique quilt!)

Tomatoes, in December!
In my December garden, there has been one frost, which killed off the pumpkin vines, the nasturtiums, and the one tomato growing in the ground. My remaining tomatoes, in planters next to the house, continue to ripe, one by one.  I even picked a red one today! 
Today's tomato harvest
I can't remember the variety, but they are some kind of salad tomato. Throughout the summer I watered them with diluted urine about 2-3 times a week, and then just normal watering the rest of the time (using collected rainwater when possible). I stopped all watering at the end of August. I also began gradually picking the leaves off at the same time, to encourage the fruit to ripen.  Finally I got my first tomatoes in September:  only enough to eat fresh, which we proceeded to do.  Since then, I have picked about 5-6 tomatoes per week on average, even up until now (December).  I try to pick when they are just turning orange, and then ripen in the fruit bowl (generally overnight), as the slugs will munch them if fully ripe on the vine.  Most of the fruit has been significantly bigger than the one shown above, thankfully!
Main veg patch:  the green bits are Brussels and kale
Compare this photo above with the one from my last post;  the runner beans on the fence are still gently ripening a few more seeds, once they have done so, I'll let the dead vines fall to the ground for in-place composting.  I've already mulched a bit for winter with some moldy straw, and you can see the Brussels sprouts have made a little bit of a comeback from the caterpillar devastation;  in the previous photo they were nothing but bare stems and stalks.  They actually have leaves--and sprouts! now, which we'll be eating at Christmas. 
My pride and joy
After all the amazing growth and vigor of my pumpkin vines, I only got one mature pumpkin.  Last year I had two spindly vines which managed to produce me one each.  Ah well.  This one is bigger than either of them, though admittedly not by much!  The vines actually produced lots of pumpkins, and I kept picking off the small new ones, to encourage the older ones to grow bigger (not a very successful tactic for me, as it turned out);  we ate the small ones as baby summer squash.  At one point I had about five biggish pumpkins growing, but one by one they turned moldy and fell off.  I don't know why.
Garden cabbage

Last year I grew my pumpkins in planters next to the house;  this year I planted them in the ground.  I think, comparatively speaking, growing in planters was better for me;  they took up less space, and I got more mature pumpkins.  I think being in the ground meant they had unlimited access to water and food (it rained a lot, and I'd enriched the soil with plenty of chicken manure), so the vines put out rampant growth at the expense of fruit.  When in the planters, water and food was limited, so the plants put all their effort into making fruit.  That's my theory, anyway.  I don't have a lot of garden space, and to have so much vine growth without any pumpkins was just a waste of growing space.
Love apple quilt:  finished!
Now it's December, there's not much light during the day.  We get a lot of rain and cloud cover, and the sun isn't up for long anyway:  I think we're getting about 8 hours of daylight.  It's not been particularly cold yet, though we've had a few cold days and nights, but winter crops are growing slowly, if at all, because of the lack of light.  Some of the kale has recovered from its caterpillar ordeal, as have the cabbage and spring broccoli, and have strong new growth--all of which I will probably harvest in spring.
Hand quilting stitches, shown from the back
So though still mild, this winter is mainly a time for reflecting on the past year, eating the preserved harvest, and making plans for the upcoming season.
My kitchen window

Saturday, October 17, 2015

In my spare time

Since earning my BSc early this year, I have really enjoyed having that extra time back;  I used to devote up to three hours a day to studies--for the past six years!  Well, technically five years, as I took a year off when Franklin was a baby.  Some of my newly regained time has gone to just plain goofing off:  computer games, movies, sleeping...
Love apple appliqued quilt blocks
But really, I've got a bunch of craft projects under my belt these past several months too.  Most recently I'm hand quilting a full sized applique quilt.  The applique and the piecing took very little time compared to hand quilting!  I find it a meditative process, however, and am enjoying it;  and I can't wait for it to be on my bed. 

Main vegetable patch
I also have some time to catch up on six years of housework.  Slowly but surely I'm deep cleaning, decluttering, organizing.  It feels like a monumental task, but by doing a bit each day, little by little it's looking nicer and nicer. 
My gorgeous Sparta apples
Did I mention that I also have a new job?  Not, sadly, in any way related to my new degree though.  In fact, it's a bit of a demotion in terms of title and status.  However, it suits me and I enjoy it:  I work for the local school district, making and serving lunch.  It means no more evenings or weekends, and I only work during school hours--with holidays and summers off.  I had worked as a chef at the hotel for almost ten years, and was just plain tired of the evenings and weekends.  It's so nice to have a day time job, even if it's kind of a menial one, even if I am over-qualified and over-experienced.  And for the most part, it's good to be working with ladies again, instead of young guys who only want to talk about video games, football, and the women they wished they could sleep with.
Someone's been eating my figs
And of course, I have more free time to work in my garden, which has flourished this year.  I have a freezer full of vegetables, and although it's definitely slowed down, I still have a few harvestables left, like leafy greens, pumpkins, and runner beans.  My tomatoes (in big pots on the patio) are still slowly turning red, and not only did I get my first almonds this year, I even got two figs off my tiny fig tree.  So tasty too, even though someone else had a bite of them first.
Newly adopted chicken, looking bedraggled
I got an email from our hen charity, asking if we could please take a few more hens, as they had 500 and if they weren't rehomed that week the poor things would be made into pies (paraphrasing here).  I felt so guilty, I said we'd take five.  Although little and quite bare, they have integrated with our flock quickly and fairly painlessly, and are enjoying life outdoors.  We now have fourteen chickens!  And only our youngest, the four chicks we raised this spring, are laying regularly--we're getting about six eggs a day.  Still, it's worth it, seeing them grow into happy, normal hens--their previous life in cages forgotten.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Growing surplus food, into the freezer

Franklin, recovering from chicken pox
Unlike last year, this year has been great for growing vegetables here in my garden.  I've even had enough surplus to begin freezing.  In fact, I'm a little low on freezer space...
Mallow, feverfew, clematis
The first thing to go in my freezer actually came from my neighbor's garden.  I gave her a couple spare tomato and zuccini seedlings earlier this summer, and then promised to water her small growing patch while she's away for six weeks.  Well, it rained for a solid week, so I didn't bother visiting, and when I finally did, her zuccini had made a monster!  I picked two off her plant, one weighing in at just under 2 pounds, and the other a more modest 1 pound.  I started off my freezer adventures with the monster zuccini (no picture, but I'm sure you know what I'm talking about).
Morello cherries, netted against birds
Though before I started freezing monsters, I froze a whole gallon of morello cherries from my little tree.  This tree is so cute!  It's not even as tall as me, but it had so many cherries this year.  Last year I froze about a third of a gallon, so it was definitely a big increase.
I built this barbecue! It's meant to be wood storage underneath, not brick storage
Next in my freezer saga are the beginnings of my runner beans.  I can't remember the exact number, but I planted approximately 40 plants, up against my neighbor's 1m tall fence.  I hung bamboo canes from the top of the fence with S hooks, and then threaded some cotton string from the canes down to the ground, and tied each string to a bean plant.  The strings and canes are now completely hidden, and I have been picking a large handful of beans every other day, some to eat and some to freeze.
Red geranium, yellow calendula, white feverfew, orange crocosmia
The most abundant vegetable in my garden this year is definitely kale.  I've got two different kinds, Tuscan (dark and crinkly), and Sutherland (smooth and wide).  I think I prefer the Sutherland, as it's less work to clean;  and since the leaves are a lot wider, there is a bigger proportion of leaf to stem:  easier to chop.  They both taste lovely though, the Tuscan a little milder in flavor.
Tuscan kale and orange crocosmia
I've frozen both kinds of kale;  like the other veg, I chop it up, then blanch it for about a minute, and plunge in ice water to cool (shock).  For the kale, I press it into a cup measure, and gently squeeze out excess water, and turn it out onto a tray to freeze, in a little ball shape.  The other veg generally gets spread out over the tray in a single layer.  Once frozen, it goes into a ziploc bag.
Sweet cherry tree, hydrangea, and pink poppy, near the old chicken yard
I've been meaning to freeze some chard this way too, but haven't got around to it.  I've got some absolutely beautiful rainbow chard this year;  I've been saving my own chard seed for years now, and it never disappoints.  This year's is bigger and brighter than ever. 
Main veg plot, viewed from the back
So that's the extent of my freezer exploits thus far, but I anticipate even more.  There's the Brussels sprouts, climbing beans, my own zuccini, leeks, and of course the already mentioned kale, chard, and runner beans.  I also have some which I won't be freezing, namely potatoes, lettuce and cabbage, plus apples and almonds.  Here's to a long and bountiful summer of veg!