A bit about us...

We are a modern family of three, living on less than two acres with a 3,000 square foot garden that meets our produce needs and allows us to share with friends and neighbors. Our laying flock of chickens seems to expand each year as we raise chicks each Spring to replace older hens. This blog is more of a journal, if you will, for us to chronicle and share our experiences in the yard, garden and kitchen. It is our hope that along the way a few folks might learn something, be entertained, or simply enjoy sharing in our stories and the lessons we learn on a daily basis. I named the blog after the times when I am the happiest, when I am elbow deep in earth.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Who doesn't need to save some money?

Having been out of a job for just under 4 months, saving money has become not just a necessity, but an obsession for me.  I grow as much of my own food as possible and then can, freeze and dehydrate all I can.  This is a constant.  This year, I am taking that a step further and starting many of my garden plants from seed.  For the cost of just one to four plants (depending on variety and how they are sold), I get enough seeds to start anywhere from 20 to 100 plants.  My largest cost is time spent caring for the seedlings.  Of course, electricity to power their lights and under tray heat is an expense as well, but I regard this as nominal.  I thoroughly enjoy watching them grow and tending to them.

The added bonus is that I have a small stand I set out near the road.  Any extra seedlings that I do not use or share with others will find their way out to that stand and hopefully pay for the seed packet.  Incidentally, it is a rare occasion when I plant ALL the seeds in the packet in one season, thus my seeds last for several seasons.  I order heirloom varieties whenever possible as well.  What this means is that I know the seeds will be true to the plant I harvest them from, so I can save seed and no longer have a need to buy more.  This is not the case with hybrid seeds that have been crossed and are not likely to produce "true" seed.

Additionally, whenever possible, I choose organic seed over conventional.  This, too, gives me an advantage.  Since I sow them in organic seed starter soil, these seedlings will be truly organic and can then be sold and distributed as such.  It also clears my conscience with regard to the quality and health of the produce.  SO!  Growing my own produce from plants I start myself makes my grocery bill MUCH smaller year round.

Along with produce, I also began growing my own herbs.  Last year we planted a multi level container full of assorted herbs and were thrilled with the results. (Incidentally, I picked up this container from where it was being stored for the winter- my mother's pole barn - to discover that the rosemary had survived the winter, as had the thyme and, evidently, the parsley.  BONUS!)   I am starting a number of herbs from seed this year, but I have also recently learned to take cuttings to further augment my harvest and available plant surplus.  I read a blog about multiplying your herb harvest a couple weeks ago and became rather inspired.  Many herbs respond well to rooting in water from cuttings, while others root well in soil with the application of a touch of rooting hormone dust.  As I read the article, I remembered having some leftover organic mint in the refrigerator that I had picked up on clearance at Kroger for making mojitos with. Out of curiosity, I retrieved it and stripped the lower leaves.  I set the little pieces in a little bottle on the windowsill and in just days, tiny white roots were apparent.  EVERY cutting rooted.

I picked up the mint on clearance for 99 cents.  I used some for mojitos and will now have 7 or 8 mint plants happily growing.  Don't I feel clever!?  I must confess, I enjoyed this so much, I recently returned to Kroger and snatched up another clearance priced organic mint pack.  (They mark them down when they get close to their freshness date.)

I have made a habit recently of picking up another often marked down item at Kroger.  They regularly mark down floral bouquets.  Every time I stop in, I look to see what is marked down. I always limit my self to less than 3 dollars and am never disappointed.  Here is what I put together this last week.

I bought three carnation bouquets priced at $0.63 each and used what was left (mostly daisies and mums) from the bouquets from the previous week.  I love spending less than two or three dollars a week to have fresh cut flowers in the house during the winter months.  It is a small price for the bright spot they create in my day during the dreary days between Christmas and gardening season!  Saving money at that same time is hard to argue with....

Monday, March 14, 2011

The cycle of life

As I let the hens out of the coop for the day, I noticed one of my girls, Goldie Hahn (Hahn is German for rooster), was lying under the nest boxes in the straw on her side.  She has been my sweetest, most friendly bird and one of my prettiest (an Aracauna that once laid green eggs).  Her legs outstretched, she wasn't willing to stand.  I quickly readied an isolation cage and scooped her up.  I know her end is near.  She isn't opening her eyes all the way and her breathing is irregular.  I carried her to the garage and opened the door so she could lie in the warm sun of this spring day in peace and pass without hassle from the rest of the flock.  She made a mess of my clothes as I carried her and I can tell she is in some sort of pain.  It is heart wrenching.

Goldie had trouble last fall.  She was egg bound (had one stuck) and was very lethargic.  I brought her into the house to hold her while I waited for my mom to bring me a cage to isolate her in.  The dog, Bitsy, laid beside me while I held her, as did Maggie, one of my two cats. Neither bothered her, as if they knew she wasn't well.  Animals can be so intuitive.  After some snuggle time being kept warm in the house, she let her egg go and rejoined the flock after a day or two of isolation and rest.

I know that as my flock ages, I will lose them one by one.  Somehow, it never gets easier.  I lost Donna earlier this winter.  She was a nice hen as well, although rough looking.  She came from a farm that had a rooster and had been picked mostly bald by him, as she was one of his favorite ladies.  She was in lay so long that she never really put any energy into refeathering.  Last summer, she molted, but not entirely.  She got some new feathers, although as they came in, they curled.  It was like her new feathers had a perm in them.  She never did completely feather out and the feathers she got did not lay right against her body. I worried for her over the winter as I knew they would not insulate her properly.  She had survived previous winters with less feathers however.  One morning when I went to let the girls out to play and scratch, she was gone, also lying near the nest boxes in the bedding.

I understand that this is the way things happen.  Old birds die and eventually must be replaced with young birds to keep the flock laying.  I enjoy raising the chicks (I had my first 6 last spring) and admit that it would be nice to have more this year.  I can not yet justify adding to the flock as I already have too many birds for the space they have in the coop.

Today, as I am losing a sweet hen, I am also looking forward to the new families of wild birds that will be raised in the yard this summer.  I cleaned out old nests and put out suet cages filled with nesting materials for the birds as they scout locations for their nests and begin gathering the materials they will need to construct them.

The robins are a perennial favorite of mine.  Our state bird, they are a joy to watch as they rear their young.  They gather worms diligently in the yard and protect their nests fiercely.  I usually have a nest on the electric meter box each year and one over at least one outdoor light fixture.  I used to try to fight the nests and prevent them.  I have learned that the robins are more determined than I am and I now embrace their presence.  I clean their nests out about every other year to promote cleaner nests (free from parasites) and because I thoroughly enjoy watching them build them.  I have a barn wood bird feeder that has an overhang and I am really hoping if I hang it on the barn that houses the hens, the robins will use it as a nesting platform instead.

And so goes the cycle of life.  As older birds take their leave of this world, younger ones are preparing to expand their families.  Spring is full of reminders of the renewal of our planet.  Some plants made it through the winter and will soon be bursting forth with life and new growth, others will need replanting.  Some animals made it though the winter, others did not, and still others are preparing to bring more life into the world.

UPDATE:  Goldie pulled through yet again!  I really didn't think she would this time.... If I hadn't found her when I did, I am certain she would have passed in the coop.  She was again egg bound and with some forced water and then food, she relaxed, laid her egg and recovered.  I let her rest in isolation for a few days to allow her to recouperate and to make sure I was confident that she was indeed on her way to wellness.  My little miracle bird, again!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Continuing education for the gardener in me

I have been focusing a lot of my attention on watching my seedlings grow (many I will need to pay extra attention to later as I started them a bit early in my zeal for spring to arrive), but I have also been reading more about the pests that affect my garden each year.  I want to learn more about which bug is which and how to combat and prevent some of the damage without using chemicals in the garden.  Learning to identify the good guys from the bad guys is the first battle.

I never knew what these ugly brown fellas were until recently.  I had seen them randomly around the garden (thankfully never in large numbers in one place or doing significant damage).  They are known as squash bugs.

Squash bugs, flea beetles, cucumber beetles, vine borers, aphids, tomato horn worms, Japanese beetles, the list of pests goes on and on.

My approach is largely a very passive one to controlling these critters.  First, I will try not to plant the same plants in the same space each year (crop rotation), making it harder for overwintering bugs in the soil to simply crawl up my young plants and begin feasting. This also helps combat diseases that can be spread in the soil. Second, careful observation is my best defense.  I watch my plants carefully, taking a stroll through the entire garden at least once every day to keep an eye on new growth, damage, and insect populations.  I use a strong stream of water to dislodge bugs, hand picking, and I do what I can to attract and maintain beneficial insects.  For example, planting sweet allysum, among other plants, can help to attract the beneficial parasitic (non-stinging) wasps that  feed on and destroy tomato worms.

If I were lucky enough to find a worm looking like this, I would leave him to munch on my tomatoes as he would soon meet his demise and is providing life to LOTS of those little worm attacking wasps. What some people are unaware of is this...these worms like peppers too.  If you are experiencing damage on your pepper plants, look for horn worms there as well!

I haven't used chemicals in my garden for some time now and have not noticed a significant decrease in yields.  However, I do have a marked increase in confidence that my produce is grown in the most healthy way I possibly can.  The bugs that do get to my produce don't eat a lot and I usually just cut out any affected areas and use the remaining fruit.  Much of what I harvest gets processed in some way and it is not important how pretty each piece is as it gets mashed for jelly or salsa.  I keep the best specimens to put on the produce stand, eat fresh or share with my loved ones.  My chickens are treated to overly damaged items (composting them and eliminating the bugs that are present as well).

I make my own compost and work lots of organic matter into the soil whenever I can.  Having a laying flock means a steady supply of compost material for aging and working into the garden.

Many gardeners recommend using something called Bt in the garden to control hornworms, cabbage "moth" caterpillars and the like.  It is a natural bacteria called Bacillus Thuringiensis that targets only caterpillars, leaving all other insects safe.  I do not choose to use it.  It will not harm the pollinators, but there are myriad of  caterpillars that I would like in my garden and it is simply not selective.  For example, I plant extra parsley and dill each year in the hopes that swallowtail butterflies will find them attractive to lay their eggs on.

As an appreciator of butterflies, I will not apply something to the garden that would kill their caterpillars.  This means I  have the opportunity to select and remove the insects that are the most harmful and preserve the ones I am willing to share some garden space with for the benefit of having the adult form present.  Many hours have been spent identifying caterpillars to determine if they are a keeper or need to be destroyed.

In my garden, patience, attentiveness and diligence are my greatest weapons.  As long as I am watching carefully and addressing problems as I see them, I can stay ahead of most issues.  As I continue to research common garden pests I continue to learn.  This year, I intend to carefully log in my garden journal which pests bother which plants/varieties so I can better plan and prepare for next year's garden.  In previous years, I logged information only on performance of varieties based on yield.  Thus, in the past, I have only captured a very small portion of the full picture in my journal.  Successful gardening is more than just stuffing seeds in the soil and waiting to harvest a bounty of fresh food.  There is a great deal of planning to be done before the soil can even be worked.  Then the real work begins.  I can't wait!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


 I started this blog last year with the intent of chronicling the growth and development of my yard and garden.  As the garden flourished, my time ran thin and I failed to record the events I set out to.  This year, I truly hope to maintain my record more diligently.  Not only is it important to me to share my experiences with others, but recording the information for my benefit is absolutely priceless.  I sat down last night and read my entries from last season and simply glowed with the flood of memories, as well as the anticipation of the season to come.

 I have ordered a plethora of seeds, most have arrived, and many are beginning their lives under lights in the basement already.  The usual staples are, of course, going to be included in the garden this year (tomatoes, beans, peas, peppers, onions, etc.).  A few new flavors will be added as well.  I have ordered tomatillo seeds, spigarello broccoli (a leaf-only variety), numerous plants for making homemade tea (stevia, chamomile, hibiscus, etc.), and some new grains (amaranth and quinoa).  That is just a sampling of the new additions. :-)  Once we get planted, I will work to keep a complete running list of this year's plantings and their varieties.  

For now, however, I am reveling in the sight of seedlings as they rise from the surface of their trays.  I am thrilled to say that a few of my tomato seedlings have officially developed their first true leaves and are off to a fantastic start (despite me nearly killing the entire tray once by failing to water).  My biggest challenge to date is holding off starting any more seeds than I have as it is just too early for most things.  I started the tomatoes a bit early, but who doesn't love the smell of tomato plants when you brush against them?  They will just be larger and ready to set out when the time comes!  

The list of anticipated outdoor projects is steadily growing as we wait for a few warm days to arrive.  I feel a bit like a racehorse waiting at the gate, ready to rush out and hit my stride.  I just need the opening I am looking for to race off and start ticking items off the list.  There are, of course, the usual clean up duties of spring, but also finishing a couple flower beds we worked on last fall, and some new projects.  Since the laying flock increased in size last year and we did not lose many to the extreme cold this winter, we have decided to expand the chicken coop again to allow more floor space for the girls.  This time, the expansion will be upward, rather than outward.  (More on that another time.)  

We will again be expanding their yard as soon as the weather breaks, and building a lovely seating area with a donated swing from my mother near their yard (and in the shade) from which we can watch the flock scratch around.  We are also thinking about adding a garden surrounding Lexi's play area to draw birds and butterflies.  This would also be our herb and tea garden as well.  

This is the toughest part of the year for me.  Waiting. Waiting for the weather to warm.  Waiting for the soil to be workable.  Waiting for things to be green again.  Looking at last's year's entries, I was working outdoors in April fairly regularly.  That is good news, as April is not far away.  Looking out the window, however, at the snow still mostly covering the lawn, it doesn't feel like it.  Mother Nature better get a move on with the warm up.  She doesn't have long!  I am ready, oh so ready, to sink my hands into the soil and get elbow deep in earth.