Winter storms have set in 2 months earlier than normal this year. It seems the new norm is abnormal with the last few years have seen some crazy swings in both rain and temperatures. In attempt to continue the productivity of my garden, I've been experimenting with planting more seasonally sensitive plants in containers suitably sized for the plants mature size. The ability to react and relocate the plants to mitigate the changing weather patterns has proven invaluable. Not all of my garden is in containers, but for those more sensitive plants it seems to be a good solution.
Too much rain too early causing tomatoes to split? Move them under cover. Basil is getting a bit too cold at night? Move it to a more protected location. If the basil gets too hot and begins to bolt, move it to a shadier spot.
There are 3 categories I've been trying, but all of the plants have are able to acclimate well to containers and can then be relocated them to their more preferred conditions when Mother Nature has different plans. My first group is trees, such as bananas and figs. Both plants will produce fruit in the pot. The figs may eventually need to be transplanted into the ground, but the bananas have worked well in the pots for several years. I've also done this with lemons and limes with excellent success.
The other category of plants that has proven tricky in a wet climate is herbs. Some herbs can tolerate a lot of water, but others like rosemary and some varieties of lavender can be tricky. They don't like their roots to get too wet and no matter how the soil is amended with sand, the natural clay at the bottom in my ground always proves to be an eventual death sentence. As a result, I've found growing these in pots is easier and enjoyable in that I can move around the interesting colors and textures as desired.
The last group is berry producing shrubs like blueberries. An additional reason for growing these in containers is they can be easily relocated to a convenient location for picking berries at the time they are producing fruit and the deep blue colors are lovely.
There are plenty of options when growing plants in containers, but keys to success include:
Helpful Hints for Preparing your Garden for Warm Weather
Getting the exterior of your home ready for warm weather can be a big job, especially if you have children or pets. You’ll want to ensure that the front and backyards are safe and present practical spaces to use for gardening, playtime, and areas for your pets to safely get in some exercise; all this requires a good plan. Take into account how big the spaces are and how best to use them for your needs. For instance, creating a sustainable plot of land that can be used for growing food or herbs is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and live a little greener (and it can save you money in the long run), but you’ll need to come up with a strategy to keep it healthy and out of the paths of children and pets.
Making everything safer is, of course, a priority, especially if you have kids who love the outdoors. Taking steps now to get things ready for warm weather will give you peace of mind and will cut back on your workload when the summer heat rolls in.
Here are a few tips on how to get started.
Plot out your lawn
If your goal is to grow food or raise animals, you’ll need to plan for getting the land ready. Not all soil is good for growing fruits and veggies, so it may take some work to prepare everything. Animals need bedding, a place to eat and drink, and safe places to rest, along with some shade away from the harsh sun. Plotting out your lawn for your needs will help you create the best place to raise food or animals and make it a success.
Start a budget
No matter what you want your lawn to look like, you’ll need to start with a budget. Raising animals can be expensive if you aren’t prepared, and while growing your own food is a cost-effective and sustainable way of living, you’ll need the right tools for the job. Creating a budget will help you stay focused and will help prevent any issues down the road.
Trim the greenery
A big part of preparing your lawn for summer is trimming up bushes and trees. This will help your kids stay safe when they’re playing outdoors as well as provide an uncluttered view of everything that’s happening. Not only that, it will keep loose limbs and detritus from becoming dangerous during summer storms. Depending on the size of your trees, it might be necessary to call in a pro. The average cost for tree and shrub maintenance is $416; click here for more information on choosing the right business to help you.
Prepare any water-based areas
If your yard includes a pool, pond, or even a birdbath, it’s important to make sure everything is clean, up-to-date, and ready for warm weather. Fall and winter can wreak havoc on water spaces, and animals can do some damage during cold weather months when looking for someplace warm to burrow down. Before filling any space with water, have it thoroughly cleaned and make any necessary repairs.
Use natural pesticides
Once spring rolls around and all the bugs make an appearance, it’s tempting to use pesticides to keep them away from your freshly-planted garden. However, your children and pets need a safe place to play, so using natural pesticides is a better way to go. Soap and water or vinegar-based solvents will take care of the job quite nicely.
Preparing your yard for warm weather is essential if you and your family enjoy spending time outdoors. With a good plan in place, you can get everything taken care of now so that you and your loved ones can relax and have fun once the days begin to heat up.
Note: This blog post was provided courtesy of Clara Beaufort at Gardenergigs.com.
How to Help Bees and your Plants
Spring is coming to the northern hemisphere and that means it's time to think about gardening. Many plants are dependent upon pollinators, specifically bees, so keep these busy little critters healthy by helping them out.
1. Don't use chemical pesticides in your garden, orchards, pastures and lawns. When buying plants for your flower beds, do not buy any plants tagged as "treated with neonicotinoids". Neonicotinoids are poisoning and killing bees, causing severe declines in the bee populations. Neonicotinoids are taken up through the plant's vascular system as it grows, as a result, the chemical is expressed in the pollen and nectar of the plant. Bess, butterflies and other pollinators ingest it and die. Some beekeepers frequently lose 75% of more of their bees annually because of this insidious chemical.
2. Put water out for the insects. Typically the pollinators will drink from puddles on the leaves and petals of the plants, but extended drought and drip water systems sometimes results in a lack of water. Bees use lots of water when foraging for pollen and food.
3. Plant bee-attracting plants. Native plants are always high on the list. Also herbs like basil, Echinacea, mints, sage, rosemary, lavender and fennel are always enjoyed. Flowering plants include sunflowers, poppies, yucca, aloes, lantana, and many fruit bearing trees. In short, they will find almost any fragrant flower attractive and many of these plants result in fabulous tasting honey.
4. If you have unwanted bees leaving in a structure or tree, please do not kill them. Contact a bee removal and relocation service and have them relocate the bees to a more suitable location.
Helping Garden and Landscape Soils with Climate Change
No one doubts that our climate is changing. Extensive research and modeling of climate patterns has done by many organizations around the world and they have been compiling predictions for what our climate will look like in the coming decades.
What is Resilient Soil?
Healthy soil is a living substance teaming with a wide diversity of life, from arthropods to fungi to protozoa to small mammals. Soil is the living interface between the geology and the biology of the earth. It serves as a transformative layer converting stone into the biodiversity that the earth sustains.
Some basic characteristics of healthy soil are:
Building Healthy, Resilient Soil
There are many ways to nurture health and resiliency in our soils. One of the best models is to manage our soils in the same way that nature manages soils. Undisturbed soils tend to be more resilient to changes in climate than soils that have been cultivated or managed in yards and recreational areas.
In observing the environment, you may notice nature manages soils in the following ways:
The following are ways we can manage our soils for increased soil tilth and productivity:
How to Improve Farms, Pastures, and Lawns
Soil health techniques can be practiced at any scale. Whether you are a large-scale crop producer or you're trying to maintain a healthy lawn, you can incorporate all of the above techniques into your land-use activities.
Lawns can be diversified with many different grass species as well as legumes and forbs. Cropping systems can be diversified through crop rotations, companion plantings and cover cropping.
Focusing on health and resilience of our soils will not only create a healthier system overall, but will prepare all our landscapes for changing weather patterns in the future.
Tips to Prevent Weeds in Fields and Gardens
The additional moisture and more moderate temperatures offered by spring and fall make them the optimal seasons for seeding your pastures. In addition, be conscientious about weed management to maximize your fields' productivity.
Easy and Effective Organic Gardening Solutions
The first step in gardening is to ensure you have healthy soil. This involves feeding the soil and then allowing the soil to feed the plants. Soil health is paramount. If your soil is alive with earthworms and microbes, everything else will fall into place. Plants will be healthy and resist diseases and pest attacks.
Any use of chemical, synthetic fertilizers, disease and pest solutions will harm naturally occurring microbes and insects. Therefore anything you add or use in your garden must be organic. Clickhere to learn more about building soil.
Healthy soil is full of life. It has humus, earthworms, beneficial bacteria and beneficial fungus in the soil that helps plant roots uptake necessary nutrients. Many garden soils will need help to reach this optimal state. Modern organic amendments and fertilizers contain the necessary ingredients to help develop this environment.
Soil amendments are not fertilizers. Amendments are designed to improve the soil texture. This will help your soil retain moisture and nutrients, increasing their availability to your plants. Composted amendments are important additions to both sandy and clay soils. Lean how to compost here.
Give the Garden Time to Adjust
It will take a while for things to adjust, so be patient. There will likely be some bugs and fungicides that appear, especially early in the growing season when the ground is still moist. However, try not to become inpatient and intervene with conventional, non-organic solutions. At the same time these bad things are happening, good insects and beneficial fungi will be setting up home. Give them time to get situation and do their job.
Occasionally you may need to help out your garden's environment. That may mean adding more good insects like ladybugs, nenmtodes, green lacewings or praying mantises. In some instances it may also include spraying with a natural pesticide. Don't think that natural pesticides are harmless to everything but what you are trying to eliminate. Follow the directions so you don't harm your good bugs or your plants. To learn more about natural pesticides, click here.
Pairing Plants to Control the Insect Balance in Your Garden
Companion planting is an age old gardening technique of pairing two or more plants to gain some type of benefit: vigorous growth, higher yield, repelling pests or attracting predators of common pests. Some companion plantings work, others disappoint. But the idea of strength in diversity is never truer than in the garden and that’s what companion planting provides. Learn more about companion planting here.
Day to Day
Successful organic gardening is best enabled by observation - and it's also enjoyable. Watch carefully to what is happening and resist the urge to step in too quickly in an attempt to help. Continue to add organic soil amendments and starter fertilizer whenever you plant. Remember, it's impossible to have too much humus in your soil. Vegetable gardens especially take a lot of nutrients out of the soil, so you must replenish it.
Composting is often part of organic gardening, but it is not a requirement. You can have a fully organic garden without composting, but it is very helpful (and healthful) and satisfying to do so. If you have room for a compost pile or bin, consider composting as both a way to benefit your garden and the environment by making productive use of many waste products.
How to Grow Lavender
Lavender (Lavandula) is such a romantic flower that every gardener sooner or later succumbs to the urge to grow it. It makes an excellent companion plant for almost anything from roses to cabbage. It is one of those aromatic, gray herbs that deer avoid making it a great choice as a decoy in your Hosta or daylily beds. Lavender also attracts pollinators and other insects that are beneficial for your garden.
Lavender is a wonderful, fragrant flowers that keep their fragrance when dried and offer with many uses. Besides being beautiful and aromatic, lavender flowers are also edible. They can be used raw in salads, added to soups and stews, used as a seasoning, baked into cookies, made into oil and brewed into tea. You can use lavender to make potpourri, sachets and much more.
Undeterred by the fact that it is a native of the Mediterranean and a lover of dry, sunny, rocky habitats, we give it a try anyway, hoping it will adapt. After all, England can hardly be considered dry or particularly sunny, yet English gardeners are renowned for growing lavender plants. Think of ‘Hidcote’ and ‘Munstead’, two of the hardiest and best loved lavender varieties.
There are many varieties of lavender; so look for the variety best suited to your area:
As with most plants, your success in growing this coveted plant will depend both on what kind of growing conditions you can provide and which varieties you select to grow. Lavender plants will tolerate many growing conditions, but they thrive in warm, well-drained soil and full sun. Add organic matter to improve heavy soils.
Do not be fooled, even though lavender is a Mediterranean plant, without the right species, it will die in places like Texas which experience extended high heat and humidity without the cool nights many varieties of lavender require. It is dampness, more than cold, that is responsible for killing lavender plants. Dampness can come in the form of wet roots during the winter months or high humidity in the summer. If humidity is a problem, make sure you have plenty of space between your plants for air flow and always plant in a sunny location.
Like many plants grown for their essential oils, a lean soil will encourage a higher concentration of oils. An alkaline, or especially chalky soil, whill enhance lavenders’ fragrance. Soil should be sandy, loamy, or gravelly. If you live in an area with pour drainage, planting in a raised container with good drainage is a must.
Soil should have low fertility. Lavender prefers alkaline soil with a pH of 6.5 or higher. This can be easily measured with a soil test. Add lime to your soil to boost and retain and increase pH level.
Areas where the ground routinely freezes and thaws throughout the winter will benefit from a layer of mulch applied after the ground initially freezes. Also protect your lavender plants from harsh winter winds. Planting next to a stone or brick wall will provide additional heat and protection.
Create an12-18 inch mound with well cultivates soil and two heaving shovelfuls of 1 inch stone worked into the mound. Using a trowel, dig a hole that is deep enough for the plant. Blend together a mix or organic matter that will add nutrients to your soil. You can blend together equal parts of bone meal, lime, and well composted manure. Add 1/2 cup in the bottom of the hole and mix together well. The stone will allow the soil to drain, the lime will improve the pH, and the bone meal and compost will make for a healthy start. Lavender prefers arid conditions both beneath and above the soil. If you live in a humid climate, your plant will benefit from light colored, reflective mulch, or very small bits of pebbles and/or gravel.
Water lavender deeply but infrequently, waiting until the soil is almost dry. Be on the lookout for wet soil. If you have a mild, but wet winter, check your lavender plants to make sure the tops are not holding excess water, which can cause the crowns to rot. You never want your lavender to be sitting in wet soil, which will rot the roots. Make sure it is growing in a well-draining site to begin with.
Growing Lavender in Containers
You can always grow your lavender in portable containers or pots and move it to follow the sun or even bring it indoors for the winter. Although lavender has a large, spreading root system, it prefers growing in a tight space. In addition, lavender is shallow rooted, meaning the pot does not need to be very large. Be sure to know the mature diameter of the lavender you are planting so that you can choose an appropriate container. The average depth and spread of the root system is 8-10 inches. A pot that can accommodate the root ball with a couple of inches to spare would be a good choice. Too large a pot will only encourage excessive dampness. Be sure that there is enough drainage for your potted lavender. Root rot is one of the few problems experienced by lavender plants.
Lavender plants need 3 years to hit maturity. They will grow healthier, bloom more profusely and live longer if you do a little annual pruning. Don’t be afraid of this tough love. Lavender plants left to their own devices will become woody and flowering will diminish. Start your plants off right.
Although lavender plants get regularly pruned simply by harvesting the flowers, to keep them well shaped and to encourage new growth, a bit of spring pruning is in order. The taller varieties can be cut back by approximately one-third their height. If you have low-growing varieties, trim back foliage 1 to 2 inches. Once your plant is in its second year and if it is 3 to 4 feet tall, you should trim it back to about a third of its height to keep the plant from getting overly woody. If you plant has become woody, remove a few of its older branches and trim back more as new growth begins.
When to Prune:
In frost free areas, your lavender plants may remain evergreen. You can prune at harvesting time and prune to shape in early spring. If you live in an area where lavender suffers some winter die-back, don't even think about pruning your plants until you see some new green growth at the base of the plant. The top growth will serve as insulation, keeping the crown, and roots of the plant protected from repeated freezing and thawing. However, don’t wait too long either. You should see the new growth by mid-spring. If you wait longer, you risk cutting of the flower buds that are forming. If you disturb the plants too soon in the season, they give up trying.
There will probably be some winter die back, but if you wait until the new growth starts, you will be able to see which stems are dead and can be pruned out. If you get a second flush of blooms in the fall, you can cut them back. This will remove some of the top growth, but you don’t all these flower stalks weighing the plants down.
First Year Pruning
The important thing to remember about first year plants is not to prune down into the woody part of the stems. If you prune too drastically, they might not regrow. Look for where the woody section turns to soft green growth and then prune about 2 - 3 inches above that. It can seem severe, but pruning off all that top growth strengthens the roots and gives you a bushier, more compact plant.
Second Year Pruning
Your plant should be quite a bit larger this year, with more blooms. While the plant is in bloom, usually in mid-summer, gather up the flower stalks and once again prune the plant back to 2 - 3 inches above where the soft, green growth begins on the lower part of the plant. Don’t shear straight across. Follow the contours of the plant. You should wind up with a rounded mound. Don’t forget to clean up the sides, too.
Third Year Pruning
By year 3, your plant should be quite large and blooming with abandon. The best time to prune is just as the flowers are starting to open. The flowers will continue to open after you harvest them and you will be able to enjoy both their beauty and their fragrance in bouquets or however you plant to make use of them.
By creating a mounded shape in years 1 and 2, the plant is so full by year 3 that using your pruners is not the most efficient way to prune any longer. A small scythe or curved harvesting knife is a much better tool for this. Grab the flower stalks by the handful and slice them off at the base. Don’t try to do the whole plant at once, just grab what you can hold.
Gather a long-stemmed variety of lavender if you can, or otherwise remove the excess leaves from each stem.
It is best to pick your lavender before it is in full bloom, i.e. before the little florets are completely open and the blooms are showing color. For sachets and potpourri by cutting flower spikes or stripping flowers from stems just as the blossoms begin to show color. This ensures that the dried buds will retain their fragrance for longer, and it also means that they won’t fall apart as they dry.
As with most herbs, the best time to pick is in the mid-morning after the dew has evaporated.
Buds and Petals: If you want only dry lavender buds or petals and have limited hanging space, remove the lavender stalks from the fresh lavender, keeping the lavender heads. Place your lavender heads in a layer at the bottom of a box lined with newspaper. Store this box in a warm, dry place, and gently shake each day to aerate. Once dried, rub the lavender heads to separate off the individual buds.
Bunches: If you would like to dry lavender bunches, make sure you cut nice long stems of lavender. You can hang each stem individually to dry (time-consuming!), or gather together small bunches (so that your hand can wrap around the base of the bunch). Secure the stems of lavender together with a rubber band, because the lavender will shrink as it dries. Once dried, you can replace the rubber band with a decorative ribbon or piece of raffia. Hang your bunch of lavender upside-down to dry in a well ventilated area of your house (in your garage, from a curtain rail, etc). You can also place a blanket, sheet, tray or paper under the lavender to catch any of the petals that might fall off during the drying process (these are good to use for making lavender sachets!). Remember, humidity is your enemy.
The lavender drying time will depend upon the level of humidity and temperature, so check on your bundles periodically to assess their dryness. It can be anywhere from 1 week upwards (usually taking between 2-4 weeks).
Check that the buds and stalks are completely dry (they should feel dry and a bit brittle or crunchy to touch) before you use them, otherwise they might grow mold, fungus, or rot.Once dried, remove the rubber band from around the stems, and use the dried lavender to make fragrant flower arrangements.
Put your bunch of dried lavender in a vase, or lay on a shelf or table. These bunches will add a beautiful fragrance and look to any room. Alternatively, collect the lavender buds and use them in potpourri and lavender sachets. The remaining lavender stalks can be used as fragrant fire-starters during winter.
Unfortunately even if you do everything right and your lavender plants appear happy, the genus is generally not long lived and most lavender plants begin to decline after about 10 years. Therefore, plan to refresh your lavenders with new plants on a fairly regular basis.
Additionally, there are many other beautiful and beneficial herbs in additional to lavender which can yield great enjoyment
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1. Grow what your family loves
It's important to consider what will grow well in your area, but don't grow a particular produce just because everyone else is, especially if they aren't one of your favorites. Remember that with a successful garden, you'll be reaping an abundant harvest that can be consumed both fresh and preserved for later. Make a list of what your family truly loves to eat and plan your kitchen garden accordingly.
2. Grow for flavor
Grow Crops with long (or repeat) harvest
Certain crops are one-hit wonders, like cabbage or corn, while others keep giving. Tomatoes, beans, peas, okra and peppers will bear for weeks. Carrots, turnips and beets can be harvested over a long time as they mature. Remove the larger ones to allow the smaller ones to mature.
4. Grow vertically
Many vegetables can be grown on tripods or trellises saving a lot of space. In addition, using cages for plants like tomatoes not only helps conserve space, but ensures a better crop through reduce breakage and potentially fruit rotting when touching the ground. Cucumbers, peas and winter squash can be grown on trellises. Pole beans can be more productive than bush beans in the same amount of space and we've even used beans as a summer privacy screen. This also works well with berries such as raspberries.
6. Grow espaliers
Espaileriing means training fruit trees on a flat plane, usually against a wall or fence, but they can be free standing as well. This saves a lot of garden space.In addition, by growing the tree flat against a wall or fence, can create a favorable microclimate in which the wall radiated heat and provided shelter. Growers typically keep trees dwarfed for ease of management.
This doesn't affect fruit production as training fruit tree branches to grow horizontally increases fruit production. The technique was developed in the 16th century, out of the practical need for growing fruit in such marginal climates as northern France and southern England. It was discovered that if the branches were bent horizontally, they could direct energy away from vigorous vertical growth and into producing spurs (those lateral branches that eventually flower and produce fruit). Learn more about fruit production here.
7. Use succession planting
Some crops like leaf lettuces will grow quickly and be harvested. Replace them with new plants if the season will still support, or move to the next season's crops, depending upon the weather.
8. Mix edibles with ornamentals
We have been experimenting for a number of years with different ways of preparing the earth for our crops. Historically, tillage was performed to prepare a seedbed and control weeds. In conventional tillage, the earth is turned to a depth of 8 to 12 inches with a plow and then disked twice. No-till farming, on the other hand, is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The first three steps in conventional cultivation are eliminated and the crop residue is left undisturbed after harvest and the next round of seeds are pushed through it, followed by placing the seeds and closing the trenches or holes. Since 1989, it has become the dominant form of soil management on conventional operations, covering more than 65 percent of cropland. However, no-till planters and herbicides are available to commercially accomplish these tasks and the results have been mixed. In addition, there are large amounts of herbicides that are applied in conjunction with "conventional" no-till. With commitment and experience, no-till can work, but our focus was how to minimize tilling while also minimizing - or altogether eliminating herbicides and pesticides.
Pros and Cons of Each Approach
First, let's revisit why it is desirable to move the soil at all. Conventional wisdom was soil is tilled is to loosen it so oxygen and water can reach the area where roots will grow. However, many passes over a field with equipment and even heavy animals such as oxen or horses, much less heavy equipment, further compacts the layer of soil just beneath that of which was tilled. Additionally, the broken-up soil is very prone to being compacted by rainfall. its ability to create a more natural soil that retains nutrients and water, prevents soil erosion, and compacts less.
Plowing, it is claimed, incorporates fertilizers and crop residues into the soil, making nutrients readily available to the roots of the plants. Turning organic matter under also has the benefit of preventing planters from becoming fouled with surface trash. In no-till farming, crop residues are left on the surface, where the nutrients that result from their decay can leach into the soil. This leaching process is far more thorough than you might imagine. Fertilizers—including anhydrous ammonia, phosphorus, and potassium—are at least as effective on the no-till fields where they've been dispersed as on the plowed plots. These ingredients can be placed directly into the planting trench, where they're most needed, during seeding. As for the potential problem of the planter fouling with residues, it is recommended to cut a slot through surface trash.
Though the soil does stay cooler until a little later in the spring because of the insulating layer of residue, the day/night soil temperature fluctuations are smaller. A no-till field rapidly makes up its deficit in growth rate as the weather turns warm. And if the summer should be really hot and dry, no-till yields will nearly always exceed those of plowed ground. Since soil moisture levels can be more than 10% higher in late July in an unplowed piece of ground, it's not surprising that plants are happier in a field covered with mulch.
One of the significant downsides of plowing is it tills the entire area, where doing so by hand will only create the trench needed for seeding. Both plowing and tilling can be done in a way to help minimize the amount or water runoff, but a big benefit is that no-till soils stay more moist than those in tilled fields. The surface residues trap water and protect the earth below from the evaporative effect of the wind. In areas, where adequate spring moisture depends largely on spring rains and/or snowmelt, the vegetative cover helps keep the snow from blowing away and water runoff. (For more on permaculture practice click here). The advantages don't end there, though. If you grimaced when you read "anhydrous ammonia", consider this: One of the main problems with conventional agriculture's heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers is the leaching of these compounds into surface water during runoff. By retaining rainfall, the untilled field also better holds the chemicals that have been applied to it, thereby decreasing their pollution potential.
Our Findings in the Backyard Garden
When the climate is drier, we strongly prefer a minimal till approach as described on the Building Soil page. This might involve taking a spade and lifting up the soil where the plant will go and perhaps 12 inches of space on all sides. Then as the plant grows, we will hand pick the weeds that grow up around it. This is very desirable and doable during periods of low rain fall because a minimal amount of soil is turned over to release carbon and dust in the to atmosphere, the bacteria and beneficial creatures in the slow are minimally disturbed and the weeds - with some regular diligence, and especially when a drip irrigation system are used - are easily kept under control.
However, we've also found that in optimally rainy conditions, no till seemed like a futile attempt to do the right thing for the environment. Weeds quickly out-paced our ability to pull and pests arrived in droves, often taking advantage of the long stems and leaves of the weeds around the crops to hide themselves and gain advantageous access. Our attempt at minimal tillage in a year like this left us breathless, exhausted and with a minimal yield of crops. One of our take-aways was we needed to over-turn more of the soil around the plants and we needed to weed more often. Unfortunately, tiime is not in endless supply, so here are some other things we learned:
Happy Valentine's Day from our family to yours and peace to everyone!
Our farm family contains a menagerie of animals, but nothing helps make it possible more so than our dogs. For our farm, we currently use two Livestock Guardian Dogs, also known as LGDs, and a herding dog.
When we first started our farm, we battled little critters eatting our garden produce and rodents trying to get access to our feed. These were nuisances, but managable to some extent with more fencing, netting and other passive preventative measures. However, as our litte flocks and herds began to grow as a result of our successful breeding programs, another problem introduced itself, larger and more persistent predators that were creating losses that more significantly impacted our financial bottom line.
First Came the Guineafowl
Some of our largest losses came from predatory birds, with hawks and owls presenting the largest problems, but the occasional eagle would also make an appearance looking for an easy meal. Our free ranging chickens took the first few hits, so we introduced guineafowl to help keep a watch on the skies. The guineas are excellent watchdogs, but they had one problem - the hawks would learn to attack them from in the trees and shadows where the birds didn't see them in time. The first couple of times, my position was, "This is nature and everything needs to eat." However, it soon became apparent that the predatory birds didn't always kill because they needed a meal, but often seemed to be killing for fun or sport. Unfortunately it became somwhat common at times to see the predatory birds attack, snapping off the heads of guineas and then leaving the remainder of the body behind. In addition, it all happens so fast, that even if you are in the field with the birds, there is little you can do.
Return the Birds to the Coops and Reinforced Fencing
Our short term remedy for this was to keep all the birds inside their coops for a couple of weeks to train the predatory birds that the easy meal plan had been terminated, but this made our birds extremely unhappy, so we needed another solution. In addition, it was also nearing the time for our goat does to begin kidding and a newborn baby goat can easily be carried away by a large predatory bird. In addition, coyotes, feral hogs, skunks, foxes and other hungry, larger non-flying predators were also looking to feed themselves and their families. We employed goat panels with two more sets of wire fences with electric wire at the top surronding the kid pens, but if you've ever seen coyotes climb fences, you know this is far from a fool proof solution.
Electric tensil wire does work well with predators in the cat family as they are more sensitive to the shock and will respect it. Sitting up all night watching for predatories is not really a viable option for most people and using poisons should be avoided at all costs - not only is it a risk to animals you do want, it's a horrible death and can also negatively impact other wildlife. So, what to do? This is when we decided to give LGDs a try.
However, I always prefer to rescue dogs if at all possible, so our first find was an Anatolian Shepard/Pyrenees cross. When we first got her, she was covered in fleas, flea bites and mange. She was courageous, but almost too aggressive for my comfort level, so we began to socialize her. The "experts" will often say with a LGD that you want to work in the field, leave them in the field at all times with the once a year exception of going to the vet. This is so the dogs will bond solely with the flock instead of attacking the livestock. For LGDs that you want to keep as pets, take them with you everywhere and socialize them intensely. After working with the first LGD, I'm a little confused on this point. Perhaps our dogs are unique, but they are superb as pets and with protecting the livestock - typically barking and chasing the predator is enough to prevent any problems, but they will attack if required. I believe that this is likey because centuries of breeding for that purpose are going to instill behaviors that run very deep.
One note though is that with working LGDs, it is best to have at least two, if not more. There are many instances where a single LGD has been killed and eatten by a mountain lion and an aggresive pack of coyotes intent on getting to their target can be quite a bit to handle for a single dog. Therefore we started seeking a second rescue. It took a little while to find a fit, but eventually I received an email notifiying me of a rescue needing a home that sounded like it would be a good match for our family.
One day when selling some of our kids, a lady came to our house and enthusiastically exclaimed, "Oh my goodness, you have a Maremma! Where in the world did you get her?" We had no clue what she was talking about, so we asked a few questions and did some research on the internet and then verified that we did indeed have a Maremma Sheepdog, a breed hailing from central Italy and used for centuries to guard sheep from wolves. She's an incredibly wonderful dog and we feel very lucky that she found her way to us. She's superb with livestock job, loyal and benevolent. She watches over all the animals including the smaller herding dogs as well as cattle and horses. She's fine with heat, snow, wind and rain. Whatever the world hands to her, she's fine with the situation and just grateful to have a home - which she never leaves unless you've asked her to go with you. We couldn't have asked for a better fit.
The benefits offered by the LGDs were amazing. No more birds or larger livestock were lost again to predators. Even poisonous snakes were addressed, but somehow the benign ones are left alone - I have no clue how they understand the difference. They aren't herders and they aren't extremely active dogs. Mostly they nap or doze, but having an amazing hearing capability that allows them to hear things that other dogs never seem to notice. With the predatory birds, they also watch the skies as well as the ground and are amazing at making sure the birds move on the next easier target.
I have some great photos somewhere of the dogs work with the livestock. Once I find them, I'll post a follow-up.
Onions are one of the simplest of all crops to grow and offer amazingly diverse options. You can select from heirloom organic onions, harvest wild onions, or even grow onions from the leftover bottoms that you would normally discard as compost or trash. Onions can be grown from transplants, sets or seeds. Onions grown from seeds are a little tricker, so if you can start with onion bulbs or left over "used" onions, that's likely your best bet.
The size of the onion bulb is dependent upon the number and size of the green leaves or tops at the time of bulb maturity. For each leaf there will be a ring of onion; the larger the leaf, the larger the ring will be. The onion will first form a top and then, depending on the onion variety and length of daylight, start to form the bulb. Onions are characterized by day length; "long-day" onion varieties will quit forming tops and begin to form bulbs when the day length reaches 14 to 16 hours while "short-day" onions will start making bulbs much earlier in the year when there are only 10 to 12 hours of daylight. A general rule of thumb is that "long-day" onions do better in northern states (north of 36th parallel) while "short-day" onions do better in states south of that line.
Growing from "left-overs"
If you want to be sustainable, trim off the bottom (flatter side) of the onion leaving approximately 1.5 to 2 inches of onion attached to the roots. Allow them to dry in a cool, well-ventilated space for a few hours to a couple of days. What you are looking for is an onion that is dry to the touch and slightly shriveled. If the onion becomes moist, it will rot. Make an indention in your garden soil, place the bowl of the root into the indention and cover with 1-2 inches of soil. Keep the onions evenly moist, but not wet, so they do not rot. Onions needs enough water to grow, but too much is another problem. Be sure to reduce watering prior to your desired harvest date so the onions are harvested in dry soil and therefore do not contain any excess moisture. If you live in an area with a rainy fall season, you'll want to be sure to get your onions out of the ground before the fall rains start.
How to Plant
Fertilization of onion plants is vital to success. Traditional planting advice says onion growth and yield can be greatly enhanced by banding phosphorus 2-3 inches below the seed at planting time. This phosphorus acts as a starter solution which invigorates the growth of young seedlings (see Preparing the Soil below). Once established, onion plants should receive additional amounts of fertilizer (21-0-0 - Ammonium sulfate or Ammonium nitrate) as a side-dress application every month (see Fertilization and Growing Tips).
However, I opt to avoid conventional fertizilers. Instead I clean out my chicken coop a couple of times a year and mix in "the yield" well with my compost pile (you can learn more about composting on our composting page). After the compost is well-cured, I apply it to my garden a couple of months before I intend to plant. I will go out and very gently fold in the compost into the soil between the time of application and planting to ensure the compost is well-integrated with the soil
If planted thickly, plants can be pulled and utilized as green onions or scallions for salads or fresh eating in 8-10 weeks. However, most gardeners want to grow an onion bulb as large as possible. To do this, the onion plants must be thinned until they are at least 2-3 inches apart to insure adequate bulb expansion. The removed plants can be used for scallions or for transplanting into another area of the garden so that these too will have adequate space in which to enlarge into large bulbs.
Gardeners who tend to procrastinate should be warned that planting when there is the onset of impending frost and/or freezing temperatures could mean failure. Failure in onion production comes in two forms: complete annihilation of the young seedlings during a cold winter; or an abundance of spring onion flowers which decrease bulb size, weight and storage ability. Onion plants which are small and rapidly growing when the cold temperatures of winter arrive will probably not survive. Yet, if you plant earlier and the stem of onion plants are larger than a pencil when exposed to cold temperatures, the onion will initiate and produce a flower during the following spring. This flowering is termed bolting. Bolting requires low temperatures. Most rapid bolting is caused by temperatures of 40-45 degrees F or below.
Fall seeded crops are susceptible to bolting the following spring if warm fall temperatures, allowing excessive growth, are followed by low winter temperatures and slowed growth. Many gardeners believe that early removal of the onion flower stalk will cause onion bulb enlargement but this has not proven to be the case. Flowering causes a decrease in bulb size as well as a central flower stalk which enhances decay during storage. This is exactly what will happen to those who are planting onion transplants or sets in October or November with the hope of large onions next spring. The onion bulbs which produce a flower stalk may be large but they will be light-weight (one-half the weight of a comparable size, non-flowered onion bulb) and prone to decay.
Care Of Transplant Instructions
If you order live plants, they should be planted as soon as possible. Should conditions exist that make you unable to plant these plants right away, remove the onion plants from the box and spread them out in a cool, dry area. The roots and tops may begin to dry out but do not be alarmed, the onion is a member of the lily family and as such will live for approximately three weeks off the bulb. The first thing that the onion will do after planting will be to shoot new roots.
Preparing the Soil
Onions are best grown on raised beds at least four inches high and 20 inches wide. Banding a fertilizer rich in phosphorous (10-20-10) or a super phosphate (0-20-0) 2 to 3 inches below transplants or seeds at planting time. Banding phosphorus involves making a trench 3 inches deep, distributing one-half cup of super phosphate per 10 row feet and covering the phosphate with soil. If sowing seeds, cover lightly with one-half inch or less of soil. If using transplants, cover the fertilizer with two inches of soil and plant the transplants.
Set plants out approximately one inch deep with a four inch spacing. On the raised bed, set two rows on each bed, four inches in from the side of the row. Should you want to harvest some of the onions during the growing season as green onions, you may plant the plants as close as two inches apart. Pull every other one, prior to them beginning to bulb, leaving some for larger onions. Transplants should be set out 4 to 6 weeks prior to the date of the last average spring freeze.
Fertilization and Growing Tips
Onions require a high source of nitrogen. For organic gardeners a rich compost high in nitrogen should be incorporated into the soil. If you grow onion plants with a low nitrogen supply, the harvest date will be postponed The onions will be smaller, but they will not be as prone to sprouting.
Unfortunately, there is not any product available to assist in weed control so the only method will be cultivation. While cultivating be careful not to damage the onion bulb. As the onion begins to bulb the soil around the bulb should be loose so the onion is free to expand. Do not move dirt on top of the onion since this will prevent the onion from forming its natural bulb. Start early with cultivation practices.
Once the neck starts feeling soft do not apply any more fertilizer. This should occur approximately 4 weeks prior to harvest. Always water immediately after feeding and maintain moisture during the growing season. The closer to harvest the more water the onion will require. Weed control requires dilgence - handpulling is prefered.
Disease and Insect Control
The two major diseases that will affect onions are blight and purple blotch. Should the leaves turn pale-green, then yellow, blight has probably affected the plant. Purple blotch causes purple lesions on the leaves. Heavy dew and foggy weather favor their rapid spread, and when prolonged rainy spells occur in warm weather, these diseases can be very destructive. The best cure is prevention: use only well-drained soil, run the rows in the same direction as prevailing wind and avoid windbreaks or other protection. Should conditions persist, a spray with a multipurpose fungicide such as daconil can be applied on a 7 to 10 day schedule.
The insect that causes the most damage is the onion thrip. They feed by rasping the surface of the leaves and sucking the juices. They are light-brown in color and are approximately 1mm long. Insecticidal soap or biological insecticide may be used. Do not apply any insecticide within seven days of harvest and always follow label instructions.
Flowering -- Abnormal For Onions; Normal For Garlic
Flowering of onions can be caused by several things but usually the most prevalent is temperature fluctuation. An onion is classed as a biennial which means it normally takes 2 years to go from seed to seed. Temperature is the controlling or triggering factor in this process. If an onion plant is exposed to alternating cold and warm temperatures resulting in the onion plant going dormant, resuming growth, going dormant and then resuming growth again, the onion bulbs prematurely flower or bolt. The onion is deceived into believing it has completed two growth cycles or years of growth in its biennial life cycle so it finalizes the cycle by blooming. Flowering can be controlled by planting the right variety at the right time.
Bulb formation in garlic occurs in response to the lengthening days of spring, and bulbing and maturity are considerably hastened if temperatures are high. In addition to these requirements, the dormant cloves (divisions of the large bulb) or young growing plants must be exposed to cold temperatures between 32 and 50 degrees F. for one or two months in order to initiate bulbing. Plants that are never exposed to temperatures below 65 degrees F. may fail to form bulbs. With fall plantings, the cold treatment is accomplished quite naturally throughout the winter, but a spring planting spells disaster in many zones.
What To Do About Flowering?
Once the onion plant has bolted, or sent up a flower stalk, there is nothing you can do. The onion bulbs will be edible but smaller. Use these onions as soon as possible because the green flower stalk which emerges through the center of the bulb will make storage almost impossible. Seedstalk formation (bolting) of garlic is not induced by exposure to fluctuating temperatures, as is the case with onions, which means that a wide range of fall planting dates is permissible for this crop. Seedstalk formation is also not damaging to garlic since the cloves are arranged around the seedstalk and will be removed from the dried seedstalk. Conversely, the edible onion bulb is penetrated by the seedstalk which is hard when the bulb is harvested, but prematurely decays causing loss of the entire bulb in storage. When the tops become yellowish and partly dry, garlic is ready for harvest.
Harvesting and Storage
Onions are fully mature when their tops have fallen over. Onions that are carefully stored will stay fresher and avoid sprouting.
It is critical to cure (or dry) onions before storing them. This is a critical step to make sure your onions don't contain excess moisture. They are properly cured when the necks are tight and the outer scales are dried when they rustle. If not properly cured, the onions are likely to decay in the form of gray mold (neck rot) which occurs at the top of the bulb.
After pulling from the ground allow the onion to dry, clip the roots and cut the tops back to one inch. The key to preserving onions and to prevent bruising is to keep them cool, dry and separated. After the onions are cured, the ideal storage condition is 33 degrees F, at 65-70% relative humdity. When temperatures and humdity levels get too high, the onions are more inclined to sprout. The humdity factor is what I've historically found to be one of the trickier parts of onion storage.
When I was researching onion storage, I came across the following: "If you have the space, onions may be preserved In a refrigerator for as long as one year. Wrap the onions separately in foil." Well, I don't have that much space in a refrigerator and then doesn't seem like a very environmentally friendly way of storing them - using energy and aluminium foil.
To me, if you are growing onions, the more practical way of storing onions is in a mesh bag, nylon stocking (can't make it too heavy) or even a well ventilated burlap sack will often work. If you want to try a stocking, place an onion in the bag and tie a knot or put a plastic tie between the onions and continue until the stocking is full. Loop the stocking over a rafter or nail in a cool dry building and when an onion is desired, simply clip off the bottom onion with a pair of scissors or remove the plastic tie.
Another suggestion is to spread the onions out on a screen which will allow adequate ventilation, but remember to keep them from touching each other. As a general rule, the sweeter the onion, the higher the water content, and therefore the less shelf life. When I was a kid, the older folks just used to store them well spaced apart in their root cellars - or simply under the raised floors of houses and most of the onions seemed to store pretty well.
One other thing to keep in mind is a pungent onion will store longer so eat the sweet varieties first and save the more pungent onions for storage.
Ideally everyone wants to reduce the amount of chemicals ingested through our daily diet, but there are so many factors to consider:
So, what is the best course of action for a consumer?
If possible, grow your own fruits and vegetables. Fruits are sometimes a bit more complicated because they may require more space - trees or larger plots of land for melons to crawl across or up. Also, fruits can be very thirsty. Unless you have no concerns of water usage, it may be preferably for you to purchase organic products in the store. However, if you would like to try growing your own orchard or melon patch, it's very gratifying.
Vegetables and herbs are often easier. Crops such as beans, smaller hot peppers like jalapeno and serrano, tomatillos and okra are typically low water consumers and can tolerate hotter temperatures. Cucumbers need a lot of water and cooler temperatures. Plan your diet around your climate as well as what you like to eat. Although there are seeds and plants available that are resistant to disease, they often don't taste very good. Your best bet is to go with heirloom varietals that will grow well in your. The seeds may cost a little more, but you can collect and save the seeds from your mature crops and then plant them again the following season. Step and repeat and you will save a lot of money in the long run on seeds. Proper soil preparation and organically feeding the plans will save you a lot in effort, time and additional money that you would otherwise spend on pesticides and herbicides. A healthy plant is much more capable of fending for itself than a weak one.
In our household, tomatoes and tomatillos are frequently in recipes used and tomatoes are generally one of the higher ranked produce when it comes to residual pesticides, so we always prefer to grow our own. Tomatoes provide a great base for a salad caprese, stuffed tomatoes, pizza sauce or sauces for pastas among a myriad of other dishes.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to grow tomatoes in abundance, can them. Not only will you have tomatoes for a future time, but you can save money by having to buy fresh or canned tomatoes at the store, skip the potential BPA exposure from canned products and help preserve the environment by purchasing fewer pre-packaged products. There is an abundance of sites that offer instructions on canning tomatoes, so you can either start with this this link or search on your own till you find one that strikes your fancy.
With the onset of June many areas begin to experience the stress of summer heat. The heat stresses gardens and animals, so a few preparations now will save panicking later in the summer.
1. Ensure animals have an abundant and consistent supply of water.
Allowing your animals to go for even short periods of time without access to water not only causes them to stress as a least worst case scenario, it will impact egg production, milk productions and growth rates.
Automatic waterers/drinkers are a huge help, but be sure to check them frequently. Small ones, such as those used for poultry, can be easily bumped and accidentally turned off. In addition, malfunctions do occur. Be sure to dump out and clean the drinking fountains frequently, as the heat of summer promotes algae growth as well as minimize mosquito larvae. A scrub brush kept at various water stations will help ease the task. Check pipes, hoses, connections and floats to ensure proper operation.
Larger waterers such as those for goats should be dumped and scrubbed frequently. Toilet bowl brushes work great for this.
The use of barley straw in burlap bags works well to control algae. Commercially known as Stock Tank Secret, they are safe for livestock and fish and you can either make your own or they can be purchased at local feed stores for about $5. It lasts about 2 months. If you start with a dirty trough, it looks worse before it starts to clear, but eventually the algae is gone. One bag can process up to a 200 gal trough. However, other problems such as mosquito larva and tadpoles will still need to be addressed, so it's almost impossible to eliminate changing the water altogether.
2. Electrolytes and minerals are always important, but even more so during hotter months.
As the temperatures rise, so does an animal's susceptibility to heat exhaustion. Livestock that is trembling, breathing rapidly and shallowly and has a rising body temperature, it is likely the victim of heat exhaustion. Provide plenty of clean, cool, clear water; shade, minerals and electrolytes.
3. Chickens are particularly susceptible to heat stress.
Make sure in addition to water, birds have plenty of covered areas out of the soon with good air ventilation. Birds standing with their wings raised and panting are trying to dissipate heat. This is the first sign of heat stress. Humidity is also a large contributing factor to heat stress. Mounting fans outside the cage and using water misters will help to keep birds cool.
4. Use shade cloths to shield the garden during peak summer months.
If your garden is in a sunny area with no shade during multiple hours of the day with direct sun, a UV filter shade cloth hung over the garden will help alleviate plants' heat stress as well as prevent soil moisture from evaporating as rapidly. Be sure to check irrigation systems frequently along the lines and at drip and sprinkler locations. One fault in the line can result in multiple plants being damaged.
A veterinarian recently distributed a reminder that now that spring has arrived, parasite season is also upon us. Included in the reminder was a reference to a 2006 study noting that 15% of all commercial potting soils contain roundworm eggs; therefore, even pets that are kept 100% indoors are not immune to contracting worms. Roundworm eggs can live for years in the soil and because gardening gloves aren't always worn religiously by all gardeners, there is the possibility of contamination. Roundworms are transmittable to humans and in severe cases can cause blindness.
Gardeners will either buy gardening soils as needed and/or make their own soil via composting. Other than using the precautionary measure of wearing gloves and washing all plants thoroughly before consuming them, it likely doesn't make economical sense for gardeners to allow their purchased soils additional time for curing.
However, when composting to make your own soil, it's important to practice proper composting to prevent the transfer of parasites from our gardens to our bodies. When manure decays it turns into compost just like any other organic matter. The compost decays further into humus. After two years of decay, the manure compost has lost all of its very bad elements such as parasitic worms, and if you use common sense hygiene, it is no different from handling compost made from decaying leaves except that it is a lot richer in nutrients.
Hazards Found in Soil
Bacteria and Fungus
Soil naturally contains many type of bacteria and fungi which can cause diseases such as tetanus, botulism and histoplasmosis. It is extremely critical to avoid contact of soil with any wounds and to prevent soil from making contact with your mouth or nose to prevent entry of parasites. That may sound obvious, but be sure to wash all your produce well and be careful about brushing away pests from your facial area while working in the garden.
Using Animal Waste in Compost
This includes both wild and domesticated animals and include either feces or carcasses. Often pathogens from domesticated animals such as cattle, are often deliberately introduced to a site in raw or improperly composted manure. This could potentially contaminate soil and ground water with both bacterial and/or protozoan pathogens.
Cattle manure is basically made up of digested grass and grain. Cattle dung is high in organic materials and rich in nutrients. It contains about 3 percent nitrogen, 2 percent phosphorous, and 1 percent potassium (3-2-1 npk). However, cattle manure also contains high levels of ammonia and potentially dangerous pathogens. For this reason, it’s usually recommended that it be aged or composted prior to its use as cow manure fertilizer.
Horse manure may be available in some areas. It produces poorer quality compost, but is generally regarded as presenting a lower health risk. However, manure that has been gathered from stalls is often very high in ammonia. Either avoid manure sourced from stalls altogether or be sure it has aged for a minimum of two years or it will burn plants to the point of death. As for hazards in horse manure, a soil bacterium, Rhodococcus equi, found in horse manure, has become of increasing concern as the cause of a severe form of pneumonia in persons having a compromised immune system through AIDS, immuno-suppressive therapy, and other similiar situations. Infection can also occur through inhaling dust contaminated with dried manure.
Recent research also raises concerns about Giardia which occurs in horses. Only certain genetic subgroups of this protozoan parasite have been associated with human disease, and the presence of one of these has been identified in samples of horse manure. Giardia causes bloating, diarrhea and nausea, which can be especially protracted and debilitating in susceptible individuals.
It is generally not recommended to put the feces of meat consuming animals into composting piles because of the additional complexities of potential disease as well as it is quite difficult to decompose for the average backyard composter. Dogs and cats are also among other potential animal sources of human infection with Giardia. Nationally there are approximately 2 million cases of Giardia annually most of which involve contaminated water, but CDC estimates 10% to be food borne.
Other potential sources of contamination include waste from wild animals and birds, especially pigeons and gulls. Reptiles such as lizards, snakes and turtles are a well known source of Salmonella. Just handing the surface of an object these animals have been in contact with is enough to potentially cause contamination.
What can be done to reduce bio-hazards in soil?
One simple precaution relative to manure is that should never be used raw – apart from health concerns, it can burn plant roots. When composted, manure has to reach temperatures above 140ºF for at least 5 days to ensure destruction of bacteria such as the potentially deadlly strain of Escherichia coli (E-coli) which causes severe disease, especially in children and is principally found in cattle manure.
It is imperative that at-home compost piles reach the minimum 140 degree temperature for 5 days to destroy the pathogens found in animal manure. Many other bacterial/protozoan pathogens are present in animal manure. In residential areas composting should be limited to plant and none-meat kitchen waste. Heavy manures, like that of cows and horses, should be mixed with lighter materials such as straw or hay (this is where the manure from around the goat manager works great) in addition to the usual organic substances from kitchen vegetable matter, garden debris, and other plant based sources. Small amounts of lime or ash may also be added.
An important consideration when composting materials is the size of your bin or pile. If it's too small, it won't provide enough heat, which as stated above, is critical to safe composting. Too big of a pile will be difficult to turn and therefore the material may not get enough area. Regardless, frequent turning is a requirement.
Learn more about proper at-home composting on the Life Slice website in the gardening section.
Here in central Texas the weather is already in the 90's and the April Check List already reflects this increased in temperatures. However, the entire North American continent experienced an unusually mild winter and spring is on its way - if not already firmly in place - in most areas. Here our April Checklist:
- Make sure irrigation systems are installed and working properly. Young plants do not have well-developed root systems yet and need consistent and through watering with good drainage.
- Review your plants to determine which ones are still thriving relative to your local temperature and which ones are getting stressed as temperatures rise. Some plants such as lettuces will begin to turn bitter as temperatures increase. If you have non-hybrid plants, and especially heirloom plants, be sure to allow a few of the plants to seed out and collect their seed or allow them to disburse naturally on the wind for the next cool season cycle.
- It's time to get warm weather plants into the ground. In warmer areas, it's best to get tomatoes into the ground by mid-month. For other plants such as eggplant, beans, peppers, summer squash and tomatillos have a few more weeks before they need to be in the ground. As a rule, most warm season plants require a minimum of 50 degree soil temperatures for best germination. You can find a companion planting guide here.
- Okra should be planted by seed when the ground temperatures at or above 60 degrees.
- The opportunity to plant fruit trees has just about expired. If you need to plant or replace fruit trees, do so ASAP.
- Fertilize established trees with an organic fertilizer.
- This is an excellent time of the year to plant herbs that enjoy warm weather. Herbs to plant include anise, basil, bay, catnip, chives, comfrey, coneflower (echinacea), costmary, fennel, fenugreek, scented geranium, germander, horehound, horseradish, lamb's ear, lavender, lemon grass, lemon verbena, Mexican mint marigold, oregano, perilla, rosemary, sage, santolina, summer savory, winter savory, sesame, sorrel, southernwood, tansy, tarragon, thyme, wormwood. Both basil and lemon grass do not care for temperatures of less than 50 degrees F, so you may need to initially plant them in pots in a warm location and transplant them when night time temperatures stay above 50 degrees. On the other hand, cilantro and dill prefer cooler temperatures and as the days climb into the upper 70 degree temperature ranges you are likely to see them bolt.
- As the weather warms, chickens tolerate fewer carbohydrates in their diet. Be sure to make sure birds are getting enough protein and avoid with offering nutrient poor snacks, such as corn in the summer months.
- Baby chicks are hatching with good success. However, not all chicks make it to maturity. If you are allowing chicks to hatch under hens, check under the hens at least twice a day for broken egg shells. The chicks won't always be obvious because sometimes the hens tuck them way up into their feathers. Removing the shells will also inhibit the adult birds for getting a taste for eggs.
- Do not try to help a hatching chick out of its shell or touch it while it is still wet. Allow nature to take its course. Seldom does a distressed chick having difficulty hatching survive, whether assisted or not.
- Sometimes a hen will abandon a chick for no apparent reason. You can try to move it to a heat lamp. Sometimes you will find another broody hen that will accept the chick, but this isn't typical.
- Make sure the remaining unoccupied nesting boxes have good liners and cushion in them as the remaining hens will make them high-use areas.
- Older hens may already be getting stressed by the heat to which they have not become accustomed. It's important to make sure waterers are in good repair and offering an abundance of fresh, clean water and there is good air circulation in the coop.
- If you are hatching and raising your own birds, keep a close eye on your poultry headcount to ensure overcrowding isn't occurring. Overcrowding leads to stress which can result in bullying, disease, decreased egg production and a myriad of other problems.
- With the increasing heat, it's a good idea to do a thorough cleaning of the chicken coop now. Chick poop becomes more fragrant as heat increases. Add in some humidity and it exponentially increases further. Add chicken excrement to the compost pile.
- Make repairs, enhancement and repairs to the coop while the weather is pleasant. Working in the coop in extreme temperatures - whether cold or hot - is stressful for both you and the birds.
- It's a good time of the year to spring clean everything and the milk room, feed rooms and barns are no exception. Scrub down all the floors, walls and other surfaces with a green cleanser and hot water. Be sure to rinse well.
- This is an excellent time of year to make any expansions or improvements to your barns.
- Observe your rainwater collection systems and evaluate if there are any ways to improve your systems to further maximize capture.
- If the goats are moving onto green pasture, be sure to watch for signs of bloat. Bloat is an excessive accumulation of gas in the rumen and reticulum that results in distension. It is caused by gas trapped in numerous tiny bubbles, making it impossible to burp. Treatment for bloat can be found here.
- Check your supplies for organic dewormers, fly control supplies, minerals, baking soda and other needs that may have spoiled or expired over the winter months.
- Check goats' hooves to see if they need trimming. The increased number of daylight hours and spring rains often cause hooves to grow fastest at this time of year and you will need to trim them more frequently.
- Clean areas around mangers to eliminate any rotting feed sources which helps keep the ground fresh and rodents and pests at bay. Contribute trampled feed to the compost pile.
From what we understand from the Texas State Agricultural Commissioner, there is a serious new threat to livestock that is being called a Rasberry Crazy Ant. Originally from Jamaica, the ant was brought into the United States via the Port of Houston. First appearances were cited in 2002 around the Houston, Texas area. This the ant is now being discovered in many other Texas counties including areas around San Antonio. These ants have not yet been identified as a species, but are reportedly more bothersome than the infamous Fire Ants. They are killing many forms of wildlife and causing them to move out of areas, while often making it impossible for many homeowners and their companion pets to spend time outdoors.
These ants kill songbirds and poultry, small mammals including house pets, squirrels and even larger mammals such as deer, cattle and horses.The ants kill chickens via asphyxia by crawling into their nasal passages. In addition to the physical danger posed by the ants, they have a large affinity for climbing onto and into electronics and shorting lines causing extensive financial damage.
Humans are playing a key role in assisting with the migration of these pests. These ants show likelihood of being transported through movement of almost any infested container or material. The movement of garbage, yard debris,bags or loads of compost, potted plants, and bales of hay, can transport these ant colonies by truck, railroad, and airplane. Several very large name home improvement chains that sell plants have reportedly had problems.
Rasberry crazy ants eat almost anything; they are omnivorous. They have multiple queens and are outsmarting attempts to eradicate them. There are no effective products readily available to the consumer to manage the ants, so you should identify the ants; and, if rasberry ants, immediately treated by a professional.
Currently, the ants have been identified in south and central Texas. However, the ant has the potential to spread well beyond the current range in coastal Texas. However, because this is a semi-tropical ant, it is anticipated potential northern distribution will be limited by cooler weather conditions.
Texas A&M University has more information on their Agriculture Extension site at http://urbanentomology.tamu.edu/ants/rasberry.html
An abnormally mild winter in most of North America has resulted in an early outbreak of summer. In Central Texas, flowers and trees are blooming and insects are out. With only a limited amount of time between the last frost and summer heat for some areas, it's important to get your garden into the ground as quickly as possible after the last freeze date for your area - which of course should include a check on your 10 day weather forecast before you actually proceed. If you have not already started your vegetable garden from seed, you may want to consider purchasing seedlings and transplanting them into the ground. If you aren't sure what to look for when purchasing seedlings, get more information here.
With all the work that needs to happen in the garden, plus the arrival of baby chicks and baby goats, March is a busy month indeed. Find out what else is on our checklist.
This last week of January has been an interesting one. Yesterday in Central Texas it was 83 degrees F, one degree shy of breaking the record high. Of course the concern is the warm weather is causing plants to bloom and bud early and with an average last freeze date in mid to late March depending upon the respective location, there is a reasonable chances plants could suffer a hard set back from a late freeze, so we're anxiously watching weather forecasts with plant covers at hand. The weather here is very unpredictable and within 48 hours can offer up something wildly different from what the forecast predicted.
We're also busy cleaning barns and preparing for goat kids that will be arriving soon. Making sure the proper medical supplies are on hand, cleaning barns and prepping the kids' housing facilities are keeping us busy. Below are more details on what is on our Gardening February to-do list.
This time of year weather plays a huge factor in what chores can be done and what chores must be done. We had a few nice days over the holidays which gave us an opportunity to make some improvements to the chicken coop and add another coop for our younger guinea fowl. I'll post more about that at a later date.
Our January List:
Although the weather may not be that pleasant for outdoor chores, there are a few things you will want to be sure to check on as winter sets in.
Here is what is on our December to do list:
In the beginning . . .
I enjoy cooking, but I most enjoy it without deadlines, planned menus or others' expectations. Our dinner parties frequently include an impromptu menu determined by what nature is making available at the time combined with what sounds good to the guests and meals are prepared on the spot, in front of guests.
One early summer's evening I took the trip out to the main garden to harvest various herbs that I anticipated would be incorporated into the evening's menu. I had previously experimented with a smaller herb garden more conveniently located to the kitchen, but for a number of reasons, this garden never produce the same quality of herbs that my main garden did. However, in a pinch, it did prevent me from having to trudge out in the wind, heat, freezing cold, pitch darkness - or whatever else Mother Nature threw at me. Also, I'll admit, I get rather tired at times and just don't feel like expending the effort. Other times, it's just downright laziness.
Returning to the house with sprays of various herbs, I began to sort through my selection. It was at this point I noticed some antique bud vases sitting on a kitchen window ledge. The vases had been recently salvaged from my grandparent's house. I remembered how sushi restaurants will frequently line their bars with herb boxes. The sushi chefs will snip the herbs directly from their box and immediately incorporate them into their dishes. I decided to borrow the concept and lined my island with herb filled bud vases. The greenery added a whimsical touch and greatly simplified my meal preparation and the evening was a great success. This worked quite well and immediately became my new modus operandi.
Then a couple of weeks later . . .
After this particular dinner party, I was in a rush. Not thinking much about the remaining herbs, I moved the vases off the counter and back on the kitchen window ledge. Fast forward to a couple of weeks later when I once again was in need of fresh herbs and I remembered the herbs that had been abandoned in the bud vases.
To my surprise, not only were the herbs still as fresh as when I had collected them, they had sprouted roots, grown new leaves and even flowered. I had seen fresh cut herbs at the grocery store. The cut herbs are typically wrapped in packets to allow for attractive display, stored in water to retain freshness and offered at prices similar to what you could purchase a 3 inch potted herb for.
What a great virtually cost- and labor-free method to grow herbs. I can grow herbs in my kitchen which offers a temperature-controlled, pest-free environment; it requires no soil is which frequently can attract pests; and the care is simple and convenience unsurpassed. The only challenge for some could be enough direct sunlight, but that can be easily resolved with UV lights.
As a marketer, I know all the rules about the baseline necessity of posting a new blog post at least once a week. However, I have to say as a sustainable farmer, this isn't so easy. Not to take anything away at all from folks who are busting their bee-hinds all week at their day jobs only to return in the late hours of the evening darkness to scramble and try to save their garden or feed their livestock, but doing for a living does raise this to a new level.
Tonight is yielding our first serious freeze. By serious I mean the weather forecasters were first talking about low 40's then upper 30's. I'm pulling out the BS card to announce at 11 p.m. we were at 33 degrees F. I've planketed what I could of the garden, cut off the waterers, rolled down the canvas protectors for the chickens and will now sit and wait to learn what tragedy greets me in the morning.
So, I've played with a few new recipes this week, got some great new plants started and will now hope for the best in the morning relative to my gardens and infrastructure. I appreciate the laws relative to building audiences in the blogosphere, but sometimes Mother Nature steps in and decides to play the house rules to her advantage and preempt the best of plans I may have been contemplating for myself,.
Winter is well on its way to most parts of North America. Halloween parties abound this weekend while many of us are aborting haunting plans in lieu of watching Game 7 of the World Series. In the background harried and anxious discussions regarding Thanksgiving Holiday plans are filling the air. Amongst all this, the howling cold of the north wind and some of the goat does letting us know they are ready to breed, it's time to prepare the homestead for November.
Here is what is on our list:
1. Lift and move any plants not already in the green house. Many of the citrus are fine down into the 40 degrees F range, but even though they can tolerate lower temperatures, moving them into the green house allows us to enjoy citrus during the winter months as well.
2. Heat loving herbs such as basil are lifted and placed into pots or new plants that have been started from seed in pots are moved into the green house.
3. Check irrigation systems to make sure everything is in good working order and buried or insulated well enough to avoid any breaks and bursts. Ensure all the cold weather crops such as kale, lettuce and spinach are receiving enough water. Harvest any remaining herbs that won't make it through the colder temperatures and put away for drying.
4. Clean off all the solar panels. With the dry weather we've been having, dust accumulates on the panels and can further reduce efficiency during the already shortened hours of daylight.
5. Drain water collection eliminators and clean roof washers. Although this isn't imperative, it's better to do it now and avoid having to potentially perform these tasks during bitter winter temperatures.
6. Check and repair seals on doors and windows. The summer sun and heat can be brutal on seals, and they can break down amazingly quickly.
7. In the chicken coop, we make sure the heat lamps are at the ready and power supplies and any related materials such as extension cords are in good working order. We also inspect the tarp we keep rolled up on the side of the coop. When inclement weather arrives, we simply roll down the tarp and secure it at the bottom. When the days warm again, we can roll the tarp back up. Walk the perimeter of the coop and make sure the structure is secure from animals looking to get in for some extra feed as well as predators looking for an easy poultry dinner.
8. When you rake leaves, bag them for winter goat treats or use them as bedding. If you are too lazy to rake and have portable fencing panels, simply move the panels around to where you want the goats to graze. However, if you are still milking, you will want to keep your goats off the dried leaves as it will impact the flavor of the milk. This activity is best reserved for doelings, bucks and retired does.
9. Be sure the does are getting enough exercise to avoid pregnancy toxemia.
10. Check the barn to make sure everything is in good working order and not too drafty.
11. Lastly, if you live in an area where birds migrate, beware of over-wintering birds of prey. Deciduous trees allow for easy line of sight for predators looking for free ranging poultry, so keep a careful watch on the birds in your area. If you see a bird of prey frequently visiting your place - even if they aren't looking at your poultry - it's best to prohibit free ranging for a few days and allow the predator time to learn they should move on to more fertile hunting grounds.
Stay warm and enjoy some downtime from the hectic chores of spring time and summer!
Growing carrots, a root vegetable, in parts of Texas where we lack deep, loamy soil can be a challenge, even when you have amended the soil. Throw in a record-breaking drought and growing carrots becomes even more difficult. However, the nice thing about carrots is pests don't bother them much in the garden, so as long as you have decent soil and adequate moisture, they are easy to grow and have a zillion uses.
There are more than 100 varieties of carrots today. Carrots can be as long as 3 feet and up to 2 1/2 inches in diameter and are available in orange, white, yellow, mauve, purple and black hues. However, because of our geography and climate challenges, I have become very fond of growing Baby Carrots. Baby carrots purchased in grocery stores are actually pared down from regular sized carrots, but these carrots growth to about 3 inches long and are "true" baby carrots. The variety we planted is called Little Finger and was developed in France for pickling and canning whole or eating fresh.
This cool season mini-carrot can be harvested early if conditions require, but will still have a deep orange color, tender core and sweet flavor. In working our garden beds for the cool weather garden, we decided to pull all our carrots from one of the beds, providing us with an abundance of delicious baby carrots. Although we washed and enjoyed many of the carrots before they even had a chance to leave the garden, we had so many remaining that I spent some time experimenting with various carrot-based recipes.
Carrots do have truly unlimited uses, from appetizers to desserts, even in the fabrication of wine. Carrot greens are very nutritious and much appreciated by gourmets. One of the goals of Life Slice Garden to Table Recipes is to use as many ingredients as possible as concurrently available in your garden, requiring a minimal amount of time and energy to cook and create these recipes, so hopefully you will find some of these recipes helpful in your own kitchen.
Figs are a venerable Mediterranean staple and you will find them in grocery stores in the US from early summer to early fall. In the US, most figs are produced on the west coast and southwestern US in semi-arid regions.
In parts of Europe, such as Greece, figs are so plentiful that there are times of the year where it is nearly impossible to sell them. Some areas have the opportunity to enjoy two harvest seasons during the warmer months. If you are lucky enough to be growing some of your own figs, you need to frequently visit your own trees and check for fruits that are ready for harvest.
Figs are a culinary delicacy with a unique taste and texture. Figs are lusciously sweet, believed to be one of sweetest fruits, and feature a complex texture that combines the chewiness of their flesh, the smoothness of their skin, and the crunchiness of their seeds. In addition, since fresh figs are so delicate and perishable, some of their mystique comes from their relative rarity. Because of this, the majority of figs are dried, either by exposure to sunlight or through an artificial process. However, in this article the focus will be on fresh figs.
Figs grow on the Ficus tree (Ficus carica), a member of the Mulberry family. They are unique in that they have an opening, called the "ostiole" or "eye," which is not connected to the tree, but which helps the fruit's development, aiding it in communication with the environment. Botanically speaking, a fig is not a fruit, but simply a receptacle to hold the seeds, or "fruits" inside. The seeds can't be pollinated because the seeds are inside the fruit, the tree does not blossom.
Figs range in color, shape and subtly in texture depending upon the variety, of which there are more than 150.
Popular varieties include:
- Black Mission: blackish-purple skin and pink colored flesh
- Kadota: green skin and purplish flesh
- Calimyrna: greenish-yellow skin and amber flesh
- Brown Turkey: purple skin and red flesh
- Adriatic: the variety most often used to make fig bars, which has a light green skin and pink-tan fles
Figs: Great Nutrition Packed into a Tiny Package
- Fiber: Few foods are as rich in dietary fiber as figs. An 8 oz. serving meets approximately 1/3 of the recommended daily requirement.
- Trace minerals: Fresh figs are particularly rich in the trace mineral manganese, offering .29 milligrams, or 14.5 percent of the daily requirement per 8 oz. serving, and the major mineral potassium and 79 milligrams of calcium.
- Vitamins: An 8 oz. portion of fresh figs also provides .26mg of vitamin B6 and 10.7 micrograms of vitamin K; meeting approximately 13 percent of the recommended daily value for each. Fresh figs also are a source of vitamin E, providing 2.02mg, or 10 percent of the daily recommended requirement for the same serving.
Fig Leaves are Edible Too!
Although you are not likely to find fig leaves in a US grocery store, but the leaves are edible too. In some cultures, fig leaves are a common part of the menu, and for good reason. The leaves of the fig have repeatedly been shown to have antidiabetic properties and can actually reduce the amount of insulin needed by persons with diabetes who require insulin injections. In one study, a liquid extract made from fig leaves was simply added to the breakfast of insulin-dependent diabetic subjects in order to produce this insulin-lowering effect. And remember from your history classes what a critical role fig leaves played during the Dark Ages when artistic censors ran about protecting the pubic by strategically placing fig leaves of the statues of scandalously nude gods and goddesses.
Selecting and Harvesting Figs
Ripe figs should be kept in the refrigerator where they will stay fresh for about two days. Since they have a delicate nature and can easily bruise, you should store them either arranged on a paper towel-lined plate or shallow container. They should be covered or wrapped in order to ensure that they do not dry out, get crushed or pick up odors from neighboring foods. If you have purchased slightly under-ripe figs, you should keep them on a plate, at room temperature, away from direct sunlight.
Before eating of cooking figs, wash them under cool water and then gently remove the stem and wipe dry. Eat as is or use in one of our recommended recipes below.
Quick Serving Suggestions:
Other Uses for Figs:
Figs contain a chemical called ficin, a proteolytic enzyme capable of breaking down proteins with an action similar to that of papain, found in papayas, or bromelain, found in pineapples. Ficin is effecting in temperatures ranging from 140 degrees to 160 degrees F, the temperature range for simmering stews. If fresh figs are added to the stew, they will help tenderize the meat and impart excellent flavor. Canned figs will not work because they are heated to very high temperatures during the sterilization process.
Figs are mentioned in the Bible and other ancient writings. They are probably the world's oldest fruit and are believed to have originated in Asia Minor and first cultivated in Egypt where they then spread to ancient Crete and around the 9th century BC to Greece where they became a staple foodstuff. Figs were held in such high esteem, the Greeks created laws forbidding the export of the best quality figs. In ancient Rome they were revered as a sacred fruit. At least 29 varieties of figs were known by then.
Figs were later introduced to other regions of the Mediterranean by ancient conquerors and then brought to the Western Hemisphere by the Spaniards in 1520. Today, California remains one of the largest producers of figs in addition to Turkey, Greece, Portugal and Spain.
Selecting Dried Figs
If fresh figs are not in season and you would like to add some to your oatmeal or cereal, dried figs make a suitable alternative. If you are purchasing produce raised for commercial purposes it is advisable to select fresh figs over dried or always reach for the organic figs. Dried figs may be treated with sulfur dioxide gas during processing and sulfites to extend their shelf life, help prevent oxidation and the bleaching of colors. Sulfites used as a preservative cause in adverse reactions in approximately one out of 100 people and it is of particular concern for those who suffer from asthma.
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