Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Wasteland Nature Walk

On Tuesday morning, Ida the dog and I walked down the hill our house sits on into the valley below.  The hill is shale, fill, bits of blown in trash and a blanket of Japanese Knotweed in the summer but the knotweed is just sprouting up now.  The land isn't a lush forest or a healthy meadow, but it is supporting life nonetheless.  The plants growing along our walk are mostly opportunists.  Weeds, if you will, or extremely invasive species (Japanese Knotweed).

As much as I know we will have to battle the knotweed over this coming year, to keep it from stampeding into our yard and growing up into our electric poultry fence, I also enjoy its beauty.  Love your enemies, right?  At this stage, it looks like burly asparagus.  Its fall flowers are white and delicate and the bees like them.  Brought to this country as an ornamental, it is extrememely hard to eradicate once it establishes itself, usually on disturbed soil.  A forest of knotweed can grow from a small 2" piece of root, accidentally transported.  I think of it as The Northern Kudzu.

This is what we saw growing on our misty morning walk down the hill and back up to home.

Not sure what this is.  
Pink Dogwood, Locusts, and Pitch Pine on a hillside of shale, fill, and knotweed.
Mucho Garlic Mustard.  
Garlic Mustard.  Edible and Invasive.
Wild Violets
Stinging Nettle
Dooker's Hollow
The understory growth before the Japanese Knotweed takes over.   The brown stalks in the foreground are the dead knotweed from last year.  The new stalks are just now emerging.
Stonecrop on a rocky outcropping

Our house (white, in the middle) from below the Knotweed Forest
(Wild?) Currant
Blocks from a garage foundation that slid down the hill.

Currant growing out of a rock.

Young Knotweed shoots.
Knotweed and Garlic Mustard.  An invasive bouquet. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Spring Growth and Swarmin' Thoughts

Today I  finally got to do my first hive inspection of the year.  The dandelions are in full bloom, so now is the time for hive reversal if one is into that kinda thing.  My three hives were popping with bees.  Lots of bees.  Too many bees!  The hives were congested already and building comb in spaces between frames to make more room for themselves.  It was not ideal weather (overcast with rain on the way) so I tried not to tarry longer than needed.  The girls were grumpy anyway.  What I did:

1)  Took a look in each and every box on the hives (quickly) and found all full of brood or eggs except the bottom box.  My hives had either 3 or 4 mediums on over winter.  This means all 3 queens are alive and cranking away and one hive is bent on swarming.  I know this because the queen cups I saw had eggs in them.  Wish I had a photo to demonstrate but my hands were full!  I'll try my best to prevent the swarm but they will do what they will do in the end.
2) Took the empty bottom boxes and put them on top of the hives to give them more room to move up (hive reversal).  I may have moved some frames around to open up the brood nest a tad but they just were not having it so I skipped that.
3)  I cleaned off the bottom boards of all the dead bees and sugar brick that had fallen down.
4)  I removed comb if it was built where it would get in the way of future management (between hive bodies or in the space where the sugar brick was) and I removed the spacers and bits of sugar brick.
5) I put everything back together before the rain hit!

I removed this bit of comb that the bees in Hive B had built between frames.   This is drone (male) brood.  The chickens ate these with relish so the drones definitely did not die in vain.  
Drone Brood at "blue eye" or "purple eye" stage
Some more comb that had been built in the space from the spacer I had on for the sugar brick.  
After the hive inspection, I continued to move tomato plants around at work for several hours in the rain.  Then I came home to green bits leafing out everywhere at H & J Gardens (trying out that name for our yard!)  What a delight.  After a bleak winter it makes me so happy to see green and see flowers.


Waiting for their day in the garden: currants, dill, onions.
Fall Gold raspberries leafing out.

Currant flowers.
Gray Dogwood

Friday, April 18, 2014

Chicken Update: 4 Weeks

Hey I know chicks are dusty but MAN is this batch dusty.  Feather dander and pine shavings have combined to form a coating of big time dust everywhere in the vicinity of the brooder, which is situated in a basement side room.  Luckily, there isn't much in that room except gardening stuff and tools, but we moved tools with moving parts away from this area before they became engulfed in this dust storm!

Be forewarned, this is a good reason to keep chicks in your basement or outside and not brood them in your house.  This severe dust coating makes me want to try out a different bedding material with the next batch and see if that makes any difference.  

Big Time Dust
More Dust
Clean that dust off the heat lamp for crying out loud (I did!)
The chicks were 4 weeks old Monday (so now they are almost 5!) and they are in their awkward teenager phase.  The are in a basement side room that gets some natural light but when I turn on the light when I come down in the morning, they really get jazzed up and do their morning calisthenics of flying around and awkwardly launching themselves into the walls of the brooder, where they make spirited crash landings.  Teenagers.    Anyways,  here are a few photos of  'em. Their different comb shapes are starting to really fill out, which is neat.  I have only had birds with pea combs and single combs before so it's neat to see the rose comb shape on the Dominiques and Wyandottes.  As soon as the coop is ready, out they go!  As big as the brooder is, I know they would love to have more room for their morning calisthenics.  And I would love to have them out of the basement!

Awkward Owl-Lookin' Teenage Chick

Yep, it's a rake.  Note to self, at 3 weeks, they really love to roost.  At 4 weeks, they love it even more!
Delaware in the front, Silver Laced Wyandotte in the back
The guys and gals
Chicks just Chillin'

Whoever can be highest in the brooder wins.  Top of the waterer is a fave spot (hence the little poop accumulation)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery Opens Tomorrow!

I work at a great little urban farm and nursery in Wilkinsburg (East End of Pittsburgh, PA) called Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery.  Tomorrow is our opening day for the season and I am looking forward to it.  We sell seedlings April - September, though we have been at work planning, ordering, and preparing since last fall and seeding since January.  Now the plants look robust and it all pays off.  Good Deal!

I came to Garden Dreams 4 years ago.  Jason actually found the place when he was scouting out a place for us to lived when we moved here.  It was late fall and he found brussels sprouts alive in the frozen ground that my (now) coworker Bob had planted.  He had been looking for apartments all day and he just stumbled upon this little oasis of calm.  "It's a magical place" he told me.  And it is.  I am lucky enough to get to spend my days there now!  
It's a small operation, started by Mindy Schwartz in the year 2000.  Mindy works behind the scenes keeping the business operating smoothly after she comes home from her other job.  I run the nursery production of 45,000 seedlings and the garden that provides a demonstration garden for our customers and produce for a 16 week neighborhood CSA.  Bob manages our wholesale accounts, delivering thousands of seedlings to Whole Foods and The East End Food Co-op to sell, as well as running classes and tours and coordinating with the many community gardens and nonprofits that we donate and sell seedlings to.  Several part time folks also bust their behinds from March - July helping us pot up, seed, and plant and harvest the garden crops.  Of course this all overlaps and we all do whatever need to get done to GET THE SEEDLINGS UNDER COVER IT'S GOING TO BE 26 DEGREES TONIGHT!  Pretty damn cool place, if I do say so myself.

So what they heck have we been up to these days?  The last month and a half at Garden Dreams has seen us potting up seedlings from Echinacea purpurea to Red Russian kale to Horehound to French Thyme and now they are ready to go to their new homes.  We start all the seedlings under lights in a basement of a nearby building and then harden them off slowly to the elements.  Although certain vegetable plants are considered tender and others as hardy, any seedling will wilt and even die from stress of sun, wind, or cold if it isn't slowly introduced to it.  Since March, we have been hardening off hardy herbs and vegetables.  

Seeded trays for farm planting hardening off on a sunny day.
In the past week of mild weather, I have been hardening off our first 30 trays of tomato, pepper, eggplant, and basil seedlings to pot up.  10 of those trays got potted up yesterday.  They start in a sheltered hoop house that only lets in 37% of the sunlight, so it won't burn their tender leaves not ready for sun.  After a day, they can move into the clear plastic hoop house if its a cloudy day, or spend more time in the opaque hoop house if the sun is blaring.  Gradually they get used to the sun, and then on nice days, they come outside and get used to the wind and breeze.  You can tell if you overdid the sun or wind exposure as the seedlings get small white patches on their leaves from cell damage.  As long as it is not severe, they will recover if moved to shelter and shade.  Also I try to avoid watering these tender new seedlings in the heat of the day.  I water in morning or evening.  

A few nights ago, when the overnight forecast predicted a low of 40 degrees, I wasn't worried for the tomatoes and peppers that had been outside all week.  They were in an unheated hoop.  When I woke up the next morning, the temperature was 31 degrees.  Ack!  When I got there to check on them, they were totally fine.  No wilt, no cold damage.  Perfect, because they had been gradually aclimated.  However, if they had been out in those temperatures and been whipped around by a wind, I think it would have been a different story!  I'd like to do a whole post on hardening off, since it is so intersting.  Soon!

3 and 4 week old tomato seedlings.  128 to a tray.  Over 100 varieties total (mostly heirlooms).  They are looking forward to more root room in their own pots!
Tomato seedlings gettin' some sun.  It was windy this day and they were getting whipped around a tad but it was very warm, in the upper 60s.  They were out in the elements for several hours and then back in the hoop to recover for the late afternoon and night.  
In any case, I am ready for folks to come take these well-rooted, hardy little seedlings off our hands.  It's not time to plant tomatoes or peppers yet, but all our kales, lettuces, mizuna, pak choi, spinach, onions, strawberries, hardy herbs and the like are raring to go in the ground!

Seedling 6 packs
Chard, Collards, Kale seedlings
One of our hoop houses

Didn't intend for this post to near short-story length, but I'm just so excited.  Horray for spring and for gardening.  It just makes ya feel good.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Kefir Madness

Until the chicks were 2 weeks old, I didn't feed them anything but "chick food": 20% protein unmedicated starter.  Then I started giving them more exciting stuff here and there.  One day, earthworms (a riot ensued of chicks grabbing worms, screaming, and running around until other chicks gave chase.  Absolute mayhem.)  The next day, I mixed some feed with some of my homemade kefir.  A BIG hit.

Kefir is a yogurt-like drink.  It's thinner, has more beneficial yeasts and bacteria (some have hundreds of strains) and at least mine is a little funkier than yogurt.  It's great in smoothies though.  Or, apparently mixed with feed for chicks.  Once they eat most of their feed, quite a bit of feed powder is left in the feeder.  It's likely the finely ground grains and some of the supplement powders like kelp.  Mix it with some kefir and they will clean it up fast!  Yogurt would probably elicit a similar reaction.

The chicks at 3 weeks.

Kefir Madness.  A bit of their feed moistened with some kefir.  I have to put several plates around of the mix or it's a shoving match.

Yum yum.