Fall Garden Time!

The leaves on the tulip poplar are turning yellow, temperatures go from miserably hot and humid to cool and breezy by turn, rains come and go. I was working in the garden and heard flocks of birds in the trees, you know, those really big, noisy migrating flocks. Ducks and geese have been flying overhead in migration formation and the bees are working hard at getting the last of the nectar of the year. Fall is almost here, with its cooler temps, crisp air and the smell of fallen leaves being crushed under foot. I love autumn, it is as wonderful as spring to me, my two favorite times of year. It also signals that it is time to get the last of my fall seeds in the ground so that we have a winter harvest.

This is our first year actually getting seed in the ground in time for winter. I have tried and tried, but it is often so hot and muggy that working outside is a major chore. We had a beautiful week of cooler temps that I took advantage of and got the ground ready and the first seed and plants in. Now it is time to finish the large beds of kale and mustard and root crops. I want to prepare some beds for garlic, move some blueberry bushes to ground the pigs prepared, and fix up a greenhouse so that I will be ready to get plants going for spring time. Here are some tips for your fall garden;

  • Plant things that don’t flower and like cold such as carrots, lettuce, anything in the brassica (broccoli/cabbage) family.
  • Its okay to use a slightly shaded area while it is still hot as long as the shade is from deciduous plants (ones that drop their leaves for winter). This is especially true if you live in one of the warmer zones of the nation.
  • Plant with the purpose of covering the soil and restoring it. Cover crops of plants that correct nitrogen and provide green “manure” come spring should fill in any gaps; things like winter peas, winter rye, and oats are wonderful.
  • Prepare snow protection plans if you want to harvest in the dead of winter; hoops tunnels, straw and cold frames provide shelter for more tender crops that will continue to grow with just a touch of protection.
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Dressing The Earth

I was working in my garden today, thinking about what I was doing and also thinking about how most people farm today and how I would explain what I do to people that want to learn. I thought I would share as it forms the basis for how and why I do things on our land.

While I hold no religious reasons for my views, I feel very in-tune with the earth. In my youth and young-adulthood I wanted very much to be a biologist, a marine biologist to be quite specific. I learned that it was hard to make a good living in that field so I wove a different path for myself, but that love of the earth and the life that makes it special never has left me. I have always tried to teach others about her, how to take care of her and how she meets our needs. I am passionate about the earth in a quiet, farmer kind of way.

So, getting back on topic, I was unloading leaf mulch into the garden, lining paths and plant rows with it. It was really hot outside, and the humidity was causing sweat to run off of me as if I had just come out of the pool. It was a struggle to keep my glasses clean as the sweat dripped onto them every time I leaned over to dump another bucket of mulch on the ground. I stood up and looked around. I noticed the sweet potato vines were looking a little dehydrated and made a note to water them when the sun went a little lower. We haven’t had rain in over a week and the plants are looking a little stressed despite the thick mulch that was laid around them. I thought about it as I went back for another load. I thought about how the earth, to me, was like a woman that demanded to be dressed. She longs to be covered in life, either plants or creatures, and they form the folds and creases of her garment.

This of course led to explaining to my invisible audience what I meant by that. It is pretty simple really; bare soil erodes, it washes nutrients away to a place where they eventually get caught up and a fertile piece of land produces food for the creatures that live on it. The earth doesn’t like seeing any of her creatures hungry and longs to fix those patches of arid land. So she grows grasses there to catch the soil. Their roots are shallow and they need little to survive, but they spread with vigor and quickly cover the soil. Their leaves provide mulch that harbors insects and eventually becomes the soil rich enough for other plants (which we often call weeds) to grow. These plants continue the process of restoring the soil and nurturing life, and act as a shade to make the grass leave space for larger life. A tree’s seed is planted by a squirrel, and then grows. It provides more shade and more trees grow. Eventually they create a dense canopy that shields the earth below from excessive wind and rain and continues to mulch it with leaves and fallen branches. Many of the “weeds” and grasses cannot thrive in the shaded forest except in pockets where a tree has fallen and the earth becomes exposed again and they have to begin to sew their patch upon it.

Using these observations I apply them to my gardening. My garden was covered in crab grass when we moved here, and I was a bit concerned that we would not get a good harvest for battling the grasses. However, I knew that the earth needed covering. I knew the soil there was poor and sandy with very little top-soil, the soil that is where things actually grow. So, my plan was to create, essentially, the environment of a forest but without the trees, because most of our food plants for gardens come in about the size of “weeds”. I tilled and removed as much grass as I could. I planted with care not to over-tax the soil that was there, giving my crops space but also wanting to fill in and shade as much of the earth as I could. I applied a heavy layer of mulch made from leaves and wood chips to hold the soil and harbor insects and microbes that would break that mulch down into nutrients for the plants. I planted things that grew down with things that grew up. As I approach the fall season I am trying not to disturb that rich bed that I made but instead add to it and plant in it. The grass grew in places, but most of the spaces that were carefully mulched remained fairly grass-free and the plants produced an ample harvest and were healthy enough to withstand bug invaders. You see, nature is amazing and will find a way to survive if given the care it needs. When gardening we need to be mindful not to strip the earth of her covering. We need to cover bare ground with heavy mulches and plant our crops in such ways that it shades the ground fairly quickly. We need to continuously build the soil rather than applying chemical fertilizers that create imbalance. If we dress the earth with life (plants and in the mulch microbes and beneficial insects) she will yield bountifully.

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Ducks are Not Chickens

Today I processed our extra drakes. I figured it was  a little different, but not too much. I pulled up some how-to’s and got busy. Well, it wasn’t quite that simple. First, ducks are built a little different than chickens. Their feathers have a nice bit of water protection and even with a little soap in the water getting through all that protection wasn’t easy for loosening feathers. Second, I don’t have a meat breed of duck, I have a laying breed. They are little under all the fluff, but they do look good even though they may be better for soup than roasting. Last, getting all the feathers off is a major chore with ducks. It took hours to process 5 ducks, and the one rooster I did took 7 minutes total. So, a little warning… ducks are NOT chickens!

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Fruit & Bugs; Some Ideas

Apples

Apples

My family LOVES fruit. Yes, I capitalized that. Blueberries, grapes, peaches, apples, pineapple, kiwi… the list goes on and on. I think the only fruit my kids don’t like is tomatoes and that is because raw they burn the children’s mouths. For around 10 years now we have had fruit trees and bushes. Some years there was success (well, one year anyway) but it seems like bugs or fungus take over, or wind blows down all the fruit, or early warm temps followed by a hard freeze kill the buds. The story has been told over an over again, especially with the peaches. We plant an expensive tree, we fertilize, water, pick off bugs, allow chickens to keep the ground below clean. We see fruit, tons of it, and then right about time to ripen it all rots. It becomes very frustrating to realize that in order to get a harvest off these trees we HAVE to spray them with insecticide and fungicide or we generally get nothing.  So… we are going to try something new for 2014-15 planting.

One of the few things we ALWAYS see a harvest from, and a bountiful one at that, is blackberry, raspberry and elderberry. These are plants that are almost invasive… okay, they ARE invasive! They thrive without tending and with a little attention produce bountiful harvests. Another really good fruit is mulberry. They pop up from seed, grow quickly, and provide enough for you AND the birds! I have always gotten a harvest even if I do nothing, I have never seen them all rot or get filled with worms. They are delicious, and the bright, rich color of the fruit signifies the high antioxidant levels you need in summer to clean your body and protect you from UV damage. I planted a few black raspberries this spring and they have done so well I can root them to double or triple my numbers by next year. The blackberries produced enough for daily snacks and I only had two plants. The elderberries will do better next year, my chickens got to most of the berries since the plants were still small, but next year they will be towering and heavy with fruit (not bad for only 2 years after planting). I want to plant a bunch of mulberry trees as well. These plants all grow well naturally, and even blueberries do well here if you get the right variety. I have some wild ones in the swamp that I want to dig and plant out of the flood zone and propagate; the berries are smaller, but the plants grow so well and the berries are so sweet it is shocking when used to the somewhat bland ones commercially grown. My theory is that these plants are far more sustainable than the overly dependent fruit trees most of us have access to today. Not to mention most grow well at the edge of woodlands, which is the type of planting space I have available. I have decided that if I want fruit free of pesticides and herbicides I need to go with what nature has made strong rather than what man has made weak.

Here is my fruit plan for planting and provision;

  • fig
  • blueberry
  • grape
  • mulberry
  • elderberry
  • raspberry
  • blackberry

Stay tuned for news of how this pans out in 2015 and wish me luck ;-) I would love to hear stories from those that have done this and I would also love to see pictures of your bounty and how you use naturally growing fruit-bearing plants in your landscape.

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Farm Breakfast Casserole

I was up really, really early this morning and wanted to make a yummy breakfast for my kids and hubby, so I took a quick stock of what I had on hand and got started. It turned out rather well and so I decided to share it with you; all ingredients can be homegrown, but we bought our bacon this time around. This will also help me keep track of the recipe for later ;-)
(Pic coming soon!)

  • butter for greasing pan
  • grated farmhouse cheddar cheese
  • grated mozzarella cheese
  • 4-5 pieces bacon
  • potatoes 4-6 large potatoes washed and diced
  • 1-2 med. spicy green peppers, or regular if you don’t like spice, diced small
  • 6-12 eggs
  • fresh milk from your goat or cow
  • chicken bullion or dried stock
  • sea salt and pepper to taste

First, pre-heat oven to 350-degrees F. Then grease a 9×13″ casserole pan with the butter. Cover bottom lightly with cheddar cheese (farmhouse cheddar doesn’t melt super well, so I like it at the bottom of a dish) and then lay bacon in a single layer on the bottom. Cover with a single or double layer of potatoes, its all about how much you like, and top with green peppers.

Next, crack eggs into a med. bowl, add about 1 TBSP. chicken bullion or dried stock, 1-2 tsp. sea salt and some ground black pepper. Add about 1-2 cups milk or cream, your call, and whisk together. Pour over the potatoes and bacon, then sprinkle about 1 cup mozzarella cheese over the whole dish. Bake for 45-60 minutes, until bottom is crsipy and top has light browning on it.

Serve with a side of milk and a biscuit.

*All measurements are approximate, I sort of toss in what I have until it looks right :-)

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Blue Slate Turkeys; A New Adventure

The summer is half over, school is about to start back, and I am finally doing this post. Yeah, I’m slack :-)  Life has been a whirlwind, it seems like the days go by so quickly and so much happens in both your own life and friends lives, and something like a blog that is only around to help share information and help others gets put by the way-side. Amazingly enough (to me anyhow) it seems like you guys are still reading these little blurbs of small-time farm life and experiences, so here goes…

Blue Slate Turkeys, about 4 months old

Blue Slate Turkeys…. They are a heritage breed of turkey and very rare today, and I have noticed breeding so far is more focused on just producing them rather than selecting the finest and breeding them for vigor and size along with good temperament. They are considered a small to medium sized turkey breed; ours remind me of lightweight Jersey Giant chickens… which means you might be better off with the chickens. They are very pretty with their slate grey colored plumage, which can vary from lavender to darker grey, and even white and black pop up. The color is caused by a genetic mutation and there are two color genes that account for the color, one dominant and the other recessive, thus a bit of unpredictability.

Two friends and I went in together and each bought 8 poults this spring. We wanted a turkey that could reproduce on its own and forage and be a bit larger than chickens we have for laying. A couple of us have found that these are rather dumb birds that take some learning curves as they learn to stay safe from the elements. One friend had hers outside on the ground with her chickens from about 6 weeks on. She lost 2 birds, but after that the others have grown well. Hers are the largest and healthiest of the bunch between the three of us, and they forage well and stay close to home. The tom is very protective of the property and turns bright red and fluffs up for visitors. They are very social with the family and roost on their front porch.

Another friend has all 8 of hers still. They were kept caged and handled daily, put out on new grass patches every day and protected from the elements. They have been moved to an old chicken coop and slowly allowed some freedom. They are doing well enough, but not nearly as large as the first friends.We have narrowed down protein levels as being the issue. The cage-free turkeys at the first friends are eating tons of bugs and worms, where the others were not.

Mine are also small and under-developed. I put them out to free range as soon as they were feathered out but promptly lost 2 to the elements. They refused to go under any shelter when it rained and got too cold. I had a third one go down and found her wet and shivering, so I lured them all back into shelter and closed them up. They stayed alive and grew decent on the feed, but not like the first friends. They are not inclined to actually eat vegetation, but they can fly like you wouldn’t believe and love to roost on top of barns and houses. I recently made an outdoor run with roosts for my birds (covered with wire so they don’t fly off) and they are doing much better. They are growing faster and getting more color and there are lots of bugs since they are down at the edge of the swamp. They love the outdoor roosts and have learned to go inside to escape the rain. I am hoping that soon I can train them to come back to that space and give them free range time as I want to train them to be self-sufficient. However, I can’t afford to lose any more, so I need to at least get some fertilized eggs to do another hatch before I release them. Eventually I will select carefully for strong birds with good sense and personality and actually try to breed these birds and improve the genetics I have. I have no idea what range of genetics my friends and I have among our birds, but I am hoping for enough to not create an inbreeding situation.

To summarize our experience, the blue slate turkey is truly an efficient forager, though a bit flighty. They eat way less than even small chickens when confined but need a high-protein feed or maggots fed to them if you want them to grow well. They need outdoor space to reach sexual maturity and to be healthy and happy, and air space to spread their wings and play if confined. They are rather slow learners but can become fairly attached to people which can be an annoyance when they join you up at the house every night. The ones we got from the hatchery are not going to be as big as advertised, it will take some selective breeding to achieve that. All said, I think I would have preferred a heritage bronze turkey and may eventually order some of them depending on how breeding efforts go. I am not counting on these birds to actually hatch and raise any poults since they seem a little “dense”. If your goal is to help keep a lovely heritage bird around and are willing to breed selectively this may be a good choice, but don’t expect to get these and have Thanksgiving turkey for a huge family; a large breed of chicken would be a better choice.

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