Sunday, June 26, 2011

Keeping Chickens for Beginners

So many people are asking about chickens lately, I thought I’d share my experience. That said, I don’t consider myself an expert, but a hobbyist. I like to know where my food came from, plus free-range eggs are more nutritious than factory-farmed eggs. Beyond that, chickens are quite entertaining and relaxing to watch.

Most of the questions concern housing and predators. The main thing I recommend is to bury galvanized wire fencing at least 8” deep around the perimeter of permanent housing. A foot deep is better. If you have soft, easy to dig soil, maybe try 18”. (Our soil here is almost like concrete.) Raccoons and the like tend to give up after a few tries when they keep encountering fence even underground, or at least that has been my experience. Some people like to use ‘chicken tractors’ – movable housing – so they can fertilize one piece of lawn at a time. You’d have to ask one of those folks about how they prevent predators, as I haven’t done that, but I suppose you’d want to enclose the entire bottom with 2”x4” wire.

My chicken house is 15’ x 15’ enclosed, with the same size attached sunny yard enclosed with wire to keep out predators, roof and all. There is a partial loft in the chicken ‘barn’, which they love to roost in. I keep 10 to 15 hens at a time, and when there’s anything for them to forage, I let them out during the day. That’s most of the year where I live. They roam an area of about two acres, but don’t like to go farther than that. They like to have brush areas to retreat to in case of overhead predators. In the winter when there’s nothing but snow and ice on the ground, they must be fed more to make up for the lack of insects and greenery.

Hens lay about one egg a day, when they are laying. They go through cycles of laying and not laying. Some breeds are more likely to lay in winter than most, so it may be wise to get multiple breeds in your flock. Or maybe you get tired of eggs and it’s okay to go through the cycles with them… Sometimes I provide artificial light in the winter to lengthen their daylight hours. This seems to encourage them to start laying again.

Here are some basics you should know if you want to get chickens:

Space: Factory farms might provide two square feet per chicken. I think this is an unhealthy small amount of space. At least double it. I like ten square feet per chicken. That’s your range for housing. They also need an outdoor run, which should be about ten square feet per bird. Of course if you have more room, there’s no such thing as too much space. If you let them free-range, try to feed them just before dark inside their coop, to train them to come home at night. Finally, chickens need a roost. The narrow edge of 2x lumber is just right for their feet. Allow six inches of length per bird.

Food: Feed chicks gamebird crumbles. This is a high protein feed that helps them grow to maturity. Medicated chick starter is widely available, but usually isn’t required. Once they are old enough to start laying eggs (about 6 months), switch them gradually to laying pellets or crumbles. Grown chickens don’t need as much protein. They also like a little scratch grain starting at this age. I sometimes also give them cracked corn and/or crimped oats in the winter for extra energy. Supply fresh clean water at all times. Feed stores have waterers that are optimal.

Where to get them: Feed stores often have chicks for sale in the spring, which is a fun alternative to mail order. Mail order companies have more breeds to offer and information about the breeds. I suggest looking through online catalogs to learn about breeds and decide on a list of breeds you think you might like. Then again, you might find some locally - through the newspaper, word of mouth, etc. – and those are probably just fine. Also, if you can find full grown hens, you won’t have to raise chicks, which involves closely monitoring temperature. If you want eggs, just make sure you get layers or dual-purpose birds, not meat birds. Here are two places to get you started. Please read ordering info carefully.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Just a few current pics of seedlings...

Pepper: Numex Pinata x fertile

Celery: Tango F1

Onions, leeks, artichokes, basils, etc. The red stemmed seedlings are beet x sea beet.

Soon the seedlings will be individually transplanted to larger containers.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Thoughts on this Soil

My father used to raise New Zealand White rabbits for meat production. Bud’s Bunnies was a smallish rabbitry, but it produced truckloads of rabbit manure. Those were the good old days before Dad’s shoulder replacement. I haven’t had a source of free rabbit manure for a few years now, and, the quality of my garden soil has been increasingly disappointing.

I’ve been fertilizing with bulk seed and alfalfa meals. It’s just not doing the trick, though - not like an inch or two of rabbit manure, anyway. Aside from being a high nitrogen fertilizer, rabbit manure makes excellent mulch at first, and high quality compost as the season goes on and it decomposes. It’s a perfect source of organic matter for the soil, and encourages earth worms and hosts of other beneficial soil organisms to flourish.

I’ve been using the most readily available localized source of organic matter for mulch in place of rabbit manure, tree leaves. Living in a forest means lots and lots of leaves to clean up each Fall. They are amazing for weed suppression, as they end up in flat layers like a deck of cards. Eventually they do break apart and decompose into nice, fluffy, earthy-smelling leaf mould, but at a much slower rate than manure.

I think the combination of cottonseed meal, soybean meal and alfalfa meal in addition to leaf mould will eventually make good soil, but it’s not keeping up with the heavy demands of gardening - not like rabbit manure did. So this year I’m changing a few things. First thing: lots more leaves – a deeper mulch. Deeper mulch means better water retention and fewer weeds in the short term, and more organic matter for the soil in the long term. More high-carbon material like this does call for more nitrogen. Which brings me to the second change: apply more nitrogen (than I have been). I get a soil test done once every two or three years, and they always have one recommendation in common: add more nitrogen. I’m not sure yet if I’ll address this in any way other than to increase the nitrogen sources I’m already using. I did grow some hairy vetch in combination with other fall cover crops, but considering how late it got planted, the amount of nitrogen it will have added to the soil by the time it’s turned under in a few weeks will probably not be tremendous.

Also, I hope to be trying at least one new product this year for foliar feeding. More on that to come...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hot Bed and Cold Frame

Hot Bed and Cold Frame

It’s that time of year again. Every year around this time, I start wishing I had a greenhouse. I’m a little bit glad I haven’t built it yet, because I’ve decided to completely change the garden layout, and the greenhouse would have been quite in the way. But the problem remains: seedlings are stacking up and need to be moved outside to make way for more.

So, over the past three days, I built a hot bed and cold frame. It probably wouldn’t take you three days, because you probably don’t have a damaged nervous system… This is a simple set up that generates mild heat for a few weeks as well as trapping solar heat. It will hold several flats of seedlings, and when it has served its purpose for the season, there will be a nice pile of compost left behind.

First I arranged six bales of hay into a rectangle. This hay was on the ground row inside a haybarn, so it was a little ‘spoiled’ where it touched the ground. Price: free for the taking. Next, I layered cardboard across the bottom and a few inches up the sides – not a necessary step, but I had some, and thought I’d see if it made any difference. Then I placed a layer of spoiled hay, a layer of chicken manure, a layer of spoiled grass clippings from last fall, and a layer of shredded oak leaves, followed by a layer of compost and a final second layer of shredded oak leaves. The dark color of the final layer will draw heat, and as the other layers interact and break down, they will generate heat. (Horse manure is traditionally used for hot beds, but chicken manure works.) The surrounding hay bales act as insulation to hold the heat. The last step was to place a four foot wide by six foot-eight inch tall (long in this case) double pane glass door across the top, sealing in the heat.

This will need to be monitored daily to prevent too much heat build-up. When the weather is nice, I leave the glass door turned so that the four corners of the box ventilate. The warmer the weather, the more ventilation is needed. When the forecast calls for cold weather, I leave the box sealed. Pretty simple, but you do need a thermometer, and you do need to watch the weather forecasts religiously.

I’ve done this before, and let me tell you, those glass doors are tough! A few years ago when we had a hailstorm with some of the ice balls measuring two inches in diameter, I just knew the cold frame was shattered. But to my surprise, it was none the worse for wear. Last year a freak ice storm weighed down old trees to the breaking point. A large oak branch snapped and fell onto a stack of glass doors I’ve been collecting, and only the top pane of the top door was damaged – the other side was fine. I did at least learn not to keep glass under oak branches… but my point is, don’t be too afraid of hail damage (if you are using safety glass), and do build your cold frame out in the open.

Other notes… You could build the whole thing in a pit to help moderate temperatures even more, but you might have drainage issues, and that’s extra work. You could build it with the north end sloped higher to gain more solar energy and shed water faster – this is no extra work if you build on a south-facing slope. You can also line the inside of the cold frame with water-filled two liter soda bottles for thermal mass. This helps regulate temperature swings tremendously, but it does take up valuable space.

Try it. You’ll like it.

Monday, February 23, 2009

2nd Annual CAAH Seed Swap

I participated in the Conserving Arkansas' Agricultural Heritage second annual seed swap in Mountain View, AR last Saturday. It was a wonderful event, and I'd like to share my experience and thoughts with you.

I found my way to the Ozark Folk Center easily enough, and then followed the sign to the proper building. Inside there was a room with comfortable furniture and refreshments (and they were fresh!) to the left, and a room full of seed savers to the right. I went right. Long tables covered in seeds and displays lined the walls, and round tables filled the center of the room, leaving just enough space for two abreast between them. It was not cramped, but not far from it. I found Dr. Campbell and introduced myself. He invited me to find a table and set up, but I opted to make my way around the room first. I found a corner to start in, and made the first of many good discoveries.

It’s possible I came over prepared. I brought with me a few hundred varieties of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, corn, beans, squash, okra, cowpeas, and leafy greens. Never seemed to get past the first three, though, except for one pack of Red Rippers. I wish I had remembered to bring flower seeds… Most of the other seed savers brought larger quantities of fewer varieties. I may follow that example next year, to some degree. My binders with baseball cardholders holding seed packets (nine to a page) were a big hit – it’s always fun to watch an idea spread. It seemed like more of a seed share than a seed swap; most people seemed more interested in giving than trading.

One of my favorite discoveries was the Ozark Seed Bank from Brixey, MO ( They are maintaining several interesting varieties that do well in the Ozarks bioregion, including Orange Grape Tress tomato, a.k.a. Lycopersicon humboldtii.

Swapping seeds face to face is a much different experience than it is by computer. I’ve wanted to save and swap seeds since I first encountered the idea in an ad for the Seed Saver’s Exchange in Mother Earth News decades ago (or was it in Grit?), but back then I didn’t know that pretty much any old OP would have sufficed for a trade (whatever I had to trade then would be an heirloom by now, anyway...) My interest grew in 2002 when I discovered the Baker Creek catalog, but searching locally for seed savers to trade with never panned out.

Then in 2006 I discovered seed trading on the Internet. Since then I have traded hundreds if not thousands of seed packets. The volume and access seems limitless. You develop a rapport with the people you trade with, but you never meet [most of] them face to face.

The second annual Conserving Arkansas’ Agricultural Heritage seed swap is the first one I’ve been to. Sitting to talk and swap with actual human beings is a much more primal experience than trading online. More importantly, you are talking to interesting folks who have experience growing their seeds in your bioregion! That is priceless, when you consider that the vast majority of online trading friends do not have this particular advantage to offer. I thought the trade-off would be less to choose from, but I found quite a few rare varieties (plus I am comfortable knowing that they grow well here).

I was surprised when a filmmaker asked me to be in his documentary about the seed swap. But hey, I’m game. The cinematographer, his assistant, and I met Saturday morning at the Heirloom Seed Shop, where they shot me buying seeds and talking about various heirloom gardening subjects. The new manager Chris was kind enough to open the store on her day off for us, and she provided some good footage as well. Later on, William the film student followed me for footage at the seed swap in Mountain View. Afterwards, somehow I found myself in a filmed panel discussion about the event. At the end, the filmmaker Zack asked us to state our names and titles in turn. I was last, and the only one without a title – it was then that I realized the caliber of my company. You’ll meet them when the documentary is online next month. I’m told there’s a good chance not all of my contribution will end up on the cutting room floor, so to speak.

The burning question: what did I find? Here’s a full list of the varieties I came home with (names as they appear on the packets):
Clark & Karr Family white half runner bean
John Hovis cornfield bean
Meier Family purple pole bean
Whippoorwill cowpeas
Bacello yard long bean
Anna’s Taiwan long bean
Purple podded longbean
castor bean
Great Burdock (gobo)
Nankeen cotton
Gold Coast okra
White Velvet okra
Evergreen bunching onion
Lunaria money plant (ornamental)
Musselburgh leek
Fuller’s Teasel (inedible)
Ethel Watkins
Hazelfield Farm Red
Orange Grape Tress (Lycopersicon humboldtii)
Super Sioux

I encourage all of you to look for seed swaps (or start one!) in your region. The trading we do online is very important for the spreading of genetic diversity, but trading with people in your locality will help you zero in on varieties that are highly likely to do well for you. Plus, doing some footwork in your own region just might turn up some new and rare varieties that you can keep from extinction and introduce to the rest of the world!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Tomato Foliar Diseases

I mentioned tomato foliar diseases in the last post. I mentioned them in a generic fashion, because there are so many, and because, franky, it's often hard to tell them apart. Here's a link to tomato disorders; click on "leaf" and you'll see what I mean.

They are often either fungal or bacterial. There are man-made sprays such as Daconil that many tomato growers use to prevent fungal infections. The older standard sprays were often copper based, and somewhat less effective. I don't use synthetic garden products anymore if I can help it, definitely not Daconil (it works great, I just don't like eating poison - that's why I grow my own food). Last year I tried preventative neem oil sprays, and it certainly seemed to keep foliar diseases to a minimum until the routine was interrupted. Perhaps this year I'll stick to the spray schedule...

So there is hope for preventing fungal infections, but what about bacterial? They recommend crop rotation and general cleanliness in the garden, but it's pretty hard to keep a sterile environment outdoors. I suspect there is a way to encourage soil microorganisms that keep the problem bacteria populations lower, which would have at least some impact. I don't know the answer yet.

I do know that tomato plants have more problems when they are stressed. To avoid stressing them, you want to provide them steady moisture and proper nutrients. The easiest way to ensure this is to mix plenty of compost in the soil, feed with a low nitrogen fertilizer, and mulch. Compost contains many micronutrients, helping to prevent deficiencies, and dramatically improves soil structure. Too much nitrogen causes lush green growth, which attracts disease-carrying insects and can slow flower production. Mulching tomato plants helps keep the soil from drying out and prevents infected soil particles from splashing onto the foliage during rain.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Decisions: Tomatoes for 2009

As most of you are aware, there are literally thousands of heirloom tomatoes to choose from, not to mention all the other veggies out there. One day there will be a tractor to help me with the garden, but in the meantime I have to be realistic about how many varieties I can grow in any given season. I’ve had numerous strategies for this in the past, once including dropping almost everything else so there was more room for tomatoes… Each strategy has had its drawbacks. This coming season will probably prove no different.

Nonetheless, I have devised a new plan for deciding which ones will make the cut, based on lessons of the past. Foremost amongst the pertinent lessons is to choose based on what is likely to thrive, or at least survive, in this little nook in the Ozarks. There are numerous enemies of healthy and productive organic tomato plants here, but the big two are heat and foliar diseases.

The typical tomato plant requires somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 days from transplant to produce fruits. That puts the average plant beginning production in the middle of July, when temperatures are just climbing above what most tomato plants can produce in. That leaves me two options if I want to beat the heat: early producing types and heat tolerant types. So those are two qualities high on the list.

As for foliar diseases, they can kill or seriously reduce production of a tomato plant. And the longer the season goes on, the worse the condition gets. So here again, early production is a good quality to look for.

Two qualities that rate equally high are flavor and production. Without these, what’s the point?

When I got this far, I realized that some of the things that were important to me in the past don’t have room for consideration without excluding otherwise excellent matches from my lists - things like size, shape and color of the tomatoes. Those won’t be part of the process.

So now I have a new system. I made four headings labeled Flavor, Production, DTM (days to maturity) and Environmental Suitability, and listed under each the varieties that I know either from experience or from research go into that category.

Environmental Suitability for me means Heat Tolerance (and disease tolerance), but for you it may mean cold setting ability – just depends where you live. Disease tolerance is harder to get information on with heirlooms because nobody wants to pay to find out exactly what these tolerances are, whereas with hybrids (which are generally derived from heirloom parents) the breeders will pay these testing fees for the sake of advertisement – but this is a generalized statement, there are exceptions. I know from experience that very few tomato plants are tolerant enough to foliar diseases to make much difference here, but some are susceptible enough to go off my list.

The fun part begins when you find a particular variety under multiple headings. When I completed the list, I found a few under three of the four headings – I call these Triple Threats. My Triple Threats are: Black Krim, Granny Cantrell’s German Red, and Sarnowski Polish Plum. Another surprise came with the very short list under my main environmental concern, Heat Tolerance. Heat tolerant varieties and Triple Threats go to the top of the list. Unfortunately, none of the Triple Threats are also heat tolerant… It will be interesting to see how these two classes compare over the course of the growing season. Also just for the sake of comparison, I’m going to grow the hybrid Talladega, which is considered heat-tolerant.

Then there are those that have two out of four qualities, and those that I just want to try for other reasons. Here’s my list of potentials for 2009, likely to grow or evolve before seed-starting time…

1884 Purple, Andrew Rahart’s Jumbo Red, Arkansas Traveler, Azoychka, Berkeley Tie Die, Big Boy OP, Black from Tula, Black Krim, Black Plum, Black Sea Man, Brad’s Black Heart, Brandywine OTV, Carbon, Chapman, Cherokee Purple potato leaf, Creole, Dora, Fireball, Floradade, Gary’O Sena, German Giant, Granny Cantrell’s German Red, Homestead, Japanese Black Treifele, Liz Birt, Mano, Marianna’s Peace, Marizol Bratka, Opalka, Purple Russian, Sarnowski Polish Plum, Sioux, Stupice X, Sungold hybrid and some variations, Talladega hybrid, Tee Mo Or, Thessalonika, Toedebush Pink, Vorlon, Watermelon Beefsteak potato leaf, and Wes.

From these varieties, many of which I’ll be growing for the first time, I hope that several prove to be ideally suited to this environment. I like surprises, but also I’m curious to see how well my selection method performs.

I will be trying my hand once again at breeding new tomatoes. I believe I waited too long last year to begin my attempts, which is what led me to a better understanding of the effect heat has on tomato flowers and pollen. This year I’ll start early. Since I won’t be able to wait and see how well the new (to me) varieties respond to this environment, I’ll just have to make guesses as to which ones to work with. I already know how well the ones I’ve grown before perform here, so I have a few repeats in mind already.

Of great interest to me is breeding some of the Heat Tolerant list with some of the Triple Threat list. Nothing firm in mind yet, but some possibilities might include Black Krim X Arkansas Traveler, or Granny Cantrell’s X Creole, or something along those lines. The hope being to breed a Quadruple Threat!

Breeding for flavor complexity is another interest of mine intensely influenced by Keith Mueller’s selections from crossing Brandywine and Cherokee Purple. I got a taste of his work last year when I grew Purple Haze F1 (and some F2s), which is a mixture of Brandywine, Cherokee Purple and Black Cherry. This was a new experience in the potential for flavor – WOW! They were everybody’s favorite.

I have found two other open-pollinated tomatoes that had either Brandywine or Cherokee Purple as one of the parents, Marizol Bratka and Vorlon. I would like to breed those back to one or more of Keith’s Brandywine/Cherokee Purple stabilized crosses - Dora, Gary’O Sena and Liz Birt. The intent is to do some back breeding where I get a line that’s mostly Brandywine and a line that’s mostly Cherokee Purple, and where each will have picked up genetics from other great varieties along the way.

After breeding Vorlon X Liz Birt, (for example,) I would have an F1 hybrid that is more or less ½ Cherokee Purple. I would then breed the F1 with Cherokee Purple to get a hybrid that was about ¾ Cherokee Purple. I would grow several plants from that seed, (F2s,) and select the ones that were most impressive to me. Seeds from those select F2’s would be the basis for the F3 generation, and so on for 2 or 3 more generations. Eventually I’d have an open-pollinated twist on Cherokee Purple that was particularly well suited to this environment along with whatever other good qualities arose. And the same goes for a new type of Brandywine: Marizol Bratka X, say, Dora = roughly ½ Brandywine; resulting hybrid bred back to Brandywine; resulting in roughly ¾ Brandywine; make selections for a few generations, voila.

I say roughly a lot. Mendelian genetics show that after a simple F1 hybrid, future generations (F2, F3, etc.) segregate in many directions…

Grand gardening plans are easy in late December.

The point I was taking my time getting to is that choosing x number of varieties from a >x list can be made easier and more satisfying by taking your environment into consideration.