Friday, March 22, 2013

Link to a Must-Read Post PLUS DIY Seed Starting Rig Update

First, I wanted to share an interesting post about how many seeds to store/how much land you need to survive from The Survivalist Blog. If you haven't read it yet, be sure to check it out as it has some food for thought. You need to store many more seeds than you may think!

Second, remember that DIY Seed Starting Rig I made? We have been putting it to hard use and have made a few adjustments to it with experience.

Here is what it looks like today. There are plants growing on four levels of the shelving unit. If we massively increase our garden in years to come, we'll definitely have to add another shelving unit, but this will work for now.

The rig in use

We started out with only one shop light per level, but soon found that the seedlings on the outer edges of the flats were bending toward the light.

Two shop lights work better than one. You can use one in a pinch, though. 

We rotated the plants so all would have nice, straight stems, but found that it was better to just add another shop light to each level. I am so pleased with the results that we have gotten so far.

'Dwarf Blue Curled' Kale

'Farao' cabbage. These babies need transplanted soon. 

'Waltham 29' Broccoli' 

Our broccoli plants are getting extra TLC at the moment. They got a little stressed for water (see below) and  appear to need some additional fertilization. I'm paying close attention to their moisture levels and dosing them with liquid kelp and effective microbes.

The above plants were all started a month and a half ago and are certainly large enough to be hardened off and transplanted outdoors. There's just one problem: we keep getting snow! We're supposed to get another 1/2 ft. of snow this weekend.

'Purple of Sicily' cauliflower - started on March 10. We just thinned the seedlings to one per pot.

You might also notice that we have ditched the toilet paper roll seed starting pots. They work fine, but they hold so little soil that they get dried out quickly and require transplanting up into large containers. I am lazy enough that those factors make a difference for me.

'Five Color Silverbeet' - Rainbow Chard

Last weekend we planted our first seeds that require additional heat to germinate - eggplant and peppers. Tomatoes are also in that category and will be started this weekend. We bought some seedling heat mats to place under the flats that hold heat-loving plants. They raise the temperature 20 degrees above the ambient temperature of the room.

The eggplants have sprouted

Apparently it is working because we have baby eggplants. I've never grown eggplants before.

Eight shoplights + two seedling mats = a perceptibly warmer room. We think the additional warmth in the area is one of the causes for the stressed broccoli. We are paying very close to attention to moisture levels so they will outlive the lingering winter weather and survive to get transplanted outdoors.

Have you started your spring garden yet? What is growing at your house? 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Getting baby chicks for the first time? Here' s what you need to know

If you walk into your local farm/feed store during this time of year, you are likely to be greeted by the sound of peeping chicks. Beware! Do NOT go and look at the chicks (or ducks, turkeys, rabbits, or whatever cute and cuddly creatures the store might be selling) unless you are prepared to bring some home. It has been scientifically proven that it is impossible to see baby poultry in a feed store without birds coming home with you. That's what I tell Hubby Dear, anyway. (Remember how I got into raising turkeys?)

I highly recommend that folks who can raise poultry, should. It is fun and an easy way to become more self-sufficient. Before you decide to bring home those sweet, fluffy chicks, however, you need a few basic supplies and a little bit of knowledge. I will lay out those essentials in this post.

Supply list: 

1. A brooder - A brooder is simply a confined area where baby poultry can be safely raised under controlled conditions. It can be as simple as a large cardboard box, an old stock tank, or a plastic storage tote. Hatcheries also sell brooder kits like the one pictured below.

We bought our brooder kit from Randall Burkey

That brooder was fine for 17 chicks for about 2-1/2 weeks. After that time, I gradually increased the size  of the area they had to roam. Day old chicks can do well with 6 sq. inches of space per bird, but you will need to increase that to 1 sq. foot by the end of the first week and 2 sq. feet per bird by 2-3 weeks of age. Chickens need 4 sq. feet of coop space and 10 sq. feet of run space per bird as an adult. They grow quickly so have a coop or at least a plan for a coop in place before you commit to getting chickens. 

Note: Chicks can and will fly. Turkeys are even more prone to aerial feats. You better have a plan to keep your birds inside the brooder once they can fly (about 2 weeks of age or so for chickens). Take it from me that it is not fun to step on a pile of turkey poo because your poults decided to be adventurous.

2. Brooder light – Mama chickens keep their babies nice and toasty by snuggling them under their wings. Assuming you don't have a broody chicken kicking around your place, you will need to be the mama for your birds and give them heat. Brooder lights are very inexpensive and easy to adjust for the correct temperature. You want the area directly under the light to be 95 degrees at chick level. Decrease the heat (by moving your light up) by 5 degrees every week until the temperature inside the brooder is the same as the ambient temperatures. 

The brooder light is on one side. Some folks claim using a red light decreases incidences of picking,
but as long as the chicks have adequate room and don't get bored, that is not likely to be a problem for you. 

Place your brooder light at one end of the brooder so that your chicks can get away from the heat if they get too hot. I always make sure the food and water is in the cool zone. The best way to tell if the temperature is correct is to watch their behavior. If they remind you of a day care run amok, things are probably just fine. It is normal for them to sack out in a pile under the heat lamp every so often. All babies need plenty of sleep. 

3. Bedding - You need an absorbent, non-slippery material for your chicks to live in. I use pine shavings, which are sold in compressed bales in any feed store. They smell nice and are very absorbent. I put about 3" of shavings in the bottom of my brooder and then cover it with a layer of paper towels for the first four days or so, changing the towels daily. After the chicks have learned to eat their starter feed and not pine shavings, the paper towels are no longer necessary. Do NOT use sheets of newspaper as bedding. They can be too slick for baby chicks and can lead to leg problems. Do NOT use cedar shavings because they cause respiratory problems.

Bales of pine shavings and lidded trash cans for feed storage - two essentials for  us.

I turn the litter regularly (actually, the chicks do an excellent job of that) and add more as necessary. You might be surprised to read this but my chicken coop is very rarely stinky. It doesn't smell like much of anything, to be honest. To quote the very inspiring Joel Salatin, "if you smell manure, you are smelling mismanagement."  The key to this is the deep litter method. The deep litter method is beyond the scope of this post, but if you are interested in learning the best way to manage manure, I suggest reading Harvey Ussery's book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.

4. Chick-sized feeders and waterers - You will want an appropriate-sized feeder and waterer for your chicks. I like to start out with the small quart-sized ones and move up to larger containers as they grow.

Midnight the Australorp getting her first drink. Note the marbles.

When you bring your chicks home, it is a good idea to gently put their beak in the water and make sure they take a sip. You can also put marbles in the rim of the waterer to make sure the chicks can't get in and drown.  

Lunch time! 

5. Chick starter - Chicks need to eat food especially formulated for their rapid growth. I buy bags of chick starter/grower, though some feed companies separate out those two categories. Each chick will eat about 10 lb of starter to reach 10 weeks of age, so buy accordingly. I try to keep a month's worth of feed on hand at all times, but no more than that lest it grow stale.

If you have ducklings, they can eat chick starter, but they need additional niacin. My ducklings get brewer's yeast added to their feed, which provides this essential nutrient. Turkey poults also appreciate the niacin and a higher protein "meat bird" starter will support their extra growth.

6. Chick-sized grit - The chicks won't need grit until they start eating foods other than chick starter. My chicks get treats of mashed hard-boiled eggs, torn dandelion greens, and other healthy goodies starting at about one week of age. At that time I give them access to a container of grit.

Three week-old chicks enjoying a snack of mashed hard-boiled egg

That's it! It's really not difficult and it is extremely rewarding. Good luck to those of you embarking on raising poultry for the first time this spring.

Resources I recommend:

  1. The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers by Harvey Ussery 
  2. Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, 3rd Edition by Gail Damerow

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Perennial Vegetables to Establish Now for Your Survival Garden

I've been watching a series of old British TV shows called "The Victorian Kitchen Garden", "The Victorian Kitchen", and "The Victorian Flower Garden". I find it really relaxing to learn about gardening in days gone by. It's kind of like visual Valium for me.  I love it.

One of the things that these programs have done is to pique my interest in perennial vegetables. The Victorians grew a much wider array of vegetables than are commonly consumed today and many of them are perennials that will grow back year after year. If you establish several of these types of vegetables in your garden now, you will have them in place should an emergency situation occur. You could consider these plants to be living members of your food storage.

Perennials in the kitchen 

There are perennial vegetables mentioned in many of the episodes of the series listed above, but this episode of "The Victorian Kitchen" is the one that really got my wheels turning. If you start watching around 8:00, you will see the head gardener, Harry, come in with a basket of Jerusalem and Chinese artichokes for the cook, Ruth. The finished dish of Chinese artichokes is shown at about 10:30.

E8 Victorian Kitchen - The Dinner Party 

Don't those Chinese Artichokes look like some sort of insect larva? I'm not sure that I would have an easy time putting them in my mouth, but I'd enjoy giving it a go.  

Another reason to plant perennial vegetables - OPSEC

Besides the obvious advantage that perennial vegetables have in coming back every year with little help from the gardener, it is also worth noting that many don't look like vegetables to the uninformed. Jerusalem artichokes, for example, are a type of sunflower and could simply be a pleasing addition to your landscape. If the worst happens, the average Joe isn't going to recognize that your sunflowers have serious edibles growing underground.

This is what a Chinese Artichoke plant looks like. Does this look edible to you?
Image source:

What should you plant? 

There are whole books dedicated to perennial vegetables out there. (Try this one,especially if you live in warmer climates.) The following is a short list is composed of plants that will thrive in my Zone 5 climate. Many of these plants can be grown in climates both warmer and cooler than Zone 5. Follow the provided links to learn more about each plant and its needs. 

Asparagus - A classic, but, alas, no one in my family likes it. Maybe we can use it to barter. It must be grown for several seasons before you can harvest spears and even longer if you start with seeds rather than crowns.

Crosne (aka Chinese Artichoke) - Fool your friends and make them think you are eating insect larva! A plus for the time-crunched or fuel-conscious: these tubers can be cooked or eaten raw. 

Dandelions - Maybe you don't need to plant these in your garden, but you probably have them in your yard already. Just make sure you don't spray them with chemicals and you can eat them or feed them to your chickens.

Egyptian Walking Onions or other Multiplying Onions - The article I linked says that they "tend to be more reliable and productive, less day-length sensitive and less subject to the depravations of pests and diseases" than your standard onion. Yes, please! 

Good King Henry - I love the fanciful name of this plant. Apparently it is similar to spinach, though it also has edible flower buds and seeds. It can be grown in the shade, so if you have an area of your yard that is too shady for traditional vegetables, this would be a great option.

Lamb's Quarters - This is a plant that grows as a weed in many areas of the country. You can eat any of the above-ground parts of the plant and it can be used as a substitute for spinach. 

Lovage - Lovage can be grown as a substitute for celery and it was used for medicinal purposes in times past.

Patience Dock - This is a hard-to-find plant, but apparently worth the search. It is supposed to taste like spinach (Is that the perennial vegetable equivalent of "tastes like chicken"?) and is one of the earliest greens in the garden.

Russian Red Kale - I am a new convert to the wonders of kale. If you've never tried it before, it reminds me of broccoli, but in leaf form. My kids gobble it up and it is great livestock feed as well. Many varieties of kale self-seed readily, which makes kale a great addition to your perennial vegetable plan.

Rhubarb - Rhubarb is a popular spring dessert ingredient, but don't forget that the leaves are poisonous!

Skirret - This is a vegetable I had never heard of until I watched "Victorian Kitchen Garden". Apparently it was a favorite of Queen Victoria. The edible part of the plant is its roots. 

Sorrel (all kinds - Garden/Common, or French) - Tasty, lemony-flavored greens. 

Sunchoke (aka Jerusalem Artichoke) - This tuber is popular with chefs and can be eaten raw, roasted, or boiled and pureed.  This is one of the most attractive perennial vegetables to me simply because the plant is so pretty.

A sunny patch of sunchokes
Image source:

I hope you find this list to be a useful starting place. I definitely plan to make perennial vegetables part of our garden in the future.