Tuesday, January 27, 2015


We have gotten about 6" of snow and it's beautiful.  The chicken run is holding, despite my doubts on it's stability.  Morning and eve, I brush the snow accumulation off, and it has agreed to stay standing until we can reinforce it.

Wonky run is holding

Jason has starting bringing home veggie scraps from the kitchen at the restaurant where he works.  Kitchen scraps definitely keep the chickens entertained for awhile, as they toss up each kale stem in the air and bite of the bits of leaf, or play keep-away with favorite bits of squash.

Kitchen scraps are endless fun

Monday, January 26, 2015

Birds & Bees

Where I have my beehive positioned it gets great sun, which is good in winter (and needs to be shaded next summer) but it also gets blasted by wind.  About a month ago, I put up some straw bales on the sides of the hive that get hit the hardest by wind.  I didn't stack them right up against the hive, I left some space in between.

Windbreak of straw bales around the beehive (prevailing winds sides)
Note how the outer cover of the hive is jauntily askew.  That is on purpose.  Offsetting the lid like this uncovers the hole towards the front of the inner cover, and allows better ventilation of moist air from the bees' respiration.  This airflow prevents condensation from forming inside the cover and dripping on the cluster of bees.  There should also be "dead airspace" under the hive, but open area for fresh air to enter below the hive and be drawn out the top.  I do this by wrapping the pallet I have the hive placed on with tarp to block wind from blowing up into the hive through the screened bottom board from below.  However, I don't wrap it tightly and leave areas for air to enter.  

The chickens winter set up is still functioning well.  I plan to clean out all the litter in the spring for further composting, or the garden, where appropriate.

Deep litter seems to still be working
Back row: L to R New Hampshire Red, Silver Laced Wyandotte, Front Row: Dominique, Delaware
Feeder, Nest Boxes, Dust Box and straw bales as hangout spots until needed for deep litter
Clockwise from bottom left: Dominique, Easter Egger, Silver Laced Wyandotte, Delaware

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Half Ass Chicken Run

I've been wanting to build a covered space for the chickens to hang out in for awhile.  The problem is, I am an impatient builder.  I like to cut corners and do things "quickly" rather than "properly".  Got a job that should take several people several days to complete?  Great, I can do it by myself this afternoon! No problem!  I see this as a shortcoming and a positive trait.  Often I can get something done "good enough", though it may look a little, shall we say, unsightly.  

Wonky, wavy, welded wire
I want to improve my building skills.  What good skills to have, right?  But in the meantime, that doesn't stop me from doing a half ass job in the mean time.  So, this afternoon I built this jankety chicken run, sliding around in mud and chicken poop and having a grand old time.  This is not a run for your pinterest board folks.  This is a chicken run badly in need of support arches before the first snow load hits.  Granted, I drove out to Tractor Supply and tried to buy cattle panel for the arch supports, but they were about 1/4" shy of fitting in my truck bed because of the liner.  "I know!"  I thought, "I'll just use the leftover welded wire fencing roll we have for the arches and prop it up with all manner of supports including branches, a ladder, and hoops of aluminum conduit.  That'll work great!"

Don't have proper supports,? Just use a ladder!
"Bawk!  This run rules!"
Mud and Chicken Poop Slip 'n Slide
Tonight it gets cold and the ground should freeze solid and stay that way until Thursday, when it should be warm enough for a 2 person overhaul of the supports, hopefully adding some arched supports that will give the run an aesthetically pleasing appearance of a tube, instead of a lumpy plastic monster type shape.  

Despite its many shortcomings, the chickens seem to love it.

At least I did this right.  To attach plastic sheeting to a board, use 1" x 2"s and screws
"Hmmm, how does this work?"
Attached sheeting
Lumpy Run

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Winter Snow, Willow Water, and Calendula Oil

Woke up this morning to see that a little snow had appeared overnight:

View of the backyard from second story window
Snowy Garden
Chicken Coop

Snowy winter days seem the perfect time for herbal remedies and concoctions.  I don't have much experience making much with herbs and plant material beyond mixing up teas, so I thought I'd try my hand at a few things.  The first attempted item is Calendula Infused Olive Oil.  Calendula has healing properties great for the skin and minor abrasions, so my end goal is to make a salve with the finished oil and my beeswax from my beehives.  The long and the short of it is as follows:  
Calendula Infused Oil

1) Pour olive oil over dried calendula flowers and let steep in a warm place for a month.  I used extra virgin but any grade is ok.

2) Shake occasionally

3) After a month, strain and use in a salve, balm, or straight onto skin in need of a little healing.

I grow Resina calendula is the variety with the highest concentration of resins, and therefore healing properties.  It is a very easy plant to grow from seed, quite hardy to the cold and pretty to boot.  Win-win!  I followed the recipe I found at the rootsimple blog for the oil. 

Calendula oil brewing on radiator
Calendula Oil
Another experimental concoction is Willow water.  Willow (Salix sp) is a very vigorous plant.  It has many wonderful uses as a headache reliever, a source of building material from coppicing, and a rooting hormone, among other things.  It is a very vigorous species and care should be taken to choose an appropriate site that is won't spread out of control.  I know of a few wild stands that I snapped some twigs from for this water.

Willow water is used to encourage rooting for hardwood cutting propagations.  The normal rooting hormones you would purchase in a packet are chemical concoctions and this is a natural alternative.  Willow contains Indolebutyric acid (IBA) a plant hormone that stimulates rooting, as well as Salicylic acid (SA), which keeps the newly rooted plant from succumbing to infection or rot.  More info can be found about uses and properties of willow here at deepgreenpermaculture.  

Willow Water:

1) Take some cuttings from 1 year willow growth.  This will be toward the tips of branches, farther from the trunk, and will have a different bark color than the brown, older growth.  The variety I clipped has red bark but the bark might be yellow or another color, dependent on variety.  You may likely see where old growth turns into the past year's new growth.  

2) Clip cuttings into 1' pieces and cover with boiling water.

3) Steep your "tea" overnight and then strain out the willow bits.  

4) Place your cuttings to root in a vessel with the willow water overnight, then remove them to pots of seed starting medium, or however else you will be starting them (a nursery bed in the garden if it is warm enough).  For the bay laurel I am trying to root, I will give each an indiviual pot of soiless medium, a ziploc bag loosely overtop of the cutting to increase humidity, and a warm, light spot by the radiator.  

5) Label and store leftover willow water for up to 2 months in the fridge.

Left to Right: Cut willow twigs, finished willow water, bay laurel waiting to get rooted 
Bay Laurel soaking in willow water
I appreciate the ease of these experiments and look forward to seeing if the calendula oil heals cuts and the willow water helps my bay laurel cuttings root!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Winter Chicken Water Update

I posted awhile back about keeping chickens water from freezing in winter.  What I have found is totally worth it is the combo below:
5 gal galvanized waterer with heater base
Galvanized heater with thermostat turns on when needed $45.00
5 gal waterer, galvanized $30.00

Not cheap but the safest combo I have found that consistently seems to keep water fresh not frozen (except in temps around zero degrees).  The cookie tin/light bulb heater I cooked up and used previously was not able to keep the water from freezing in the teens, even with a smaller capacity  waterer.  5 gallon capacity on the waterer means I only need to fill this once a week for a dozen chickens.  A 3 gallon setup we have at Garden Dreams needs to be filled at least twice a week.  This makes my chores so much easier.

 The reviews for these waterers complain about rust problems within a few years (galvanized metal ain't what it used to be?) so we shall see how they hold up.  Many folks seems to favor a birdbath or aquarium heater over the platform heater.  There seems to be no perfect winter setup, but happier with this than other things I have tried, at least so far.

cattle panel hoop keeps everything dry

Sunday, January 18, 2015

An Allium For Every Season

Cortland yellow storage onions and Redwing red storage onions

Some gardeners geek out about heirloom tomatoes; I geek out about onions, potatoes, and winter squash.  The staples to get ya through the winter.  These vegetables seem so ordinary, but in the depths of winter, when everything is gray, the warmth and color of butternut squash soup does wonders for the soul.  And homegrown, they have wonderful flavor and texture!

But, I digress.  Back to onions and other alliums.  I love to grow them, and I definitely have my favorite varieties that have done very well for me in zone 6 Pittsburgh in clay soils.

Yellow: Copra or Cortland.  Excellent storage onion with great pungency for cooking.
Red: Redwing.  Excellent storage onion with brilliant burgundy coloring

As far as other alliums go, I have had good luck with Conservor hybrid shallots, but this year I am trying Zebrune shallots, French banana shallots from Seed Saver's exchange.  I'm also trying some other fun onion types: Cipollini (the flattened disk type onions that store well) and Red of Tropea, beautiful red torpedo-shaped onions for fresh use as they don't store well.

Leeks are a must have as well.  They take their sweet time to mature, but they are easy to grow and hardy as heck.  We are still pulling leeks that have frozen and thawed many times in the garden under straw and they are perfectly fine.  Leeks benefit from planting in a trench and burying as they grow or mulching most of the plant, in order to blanch and elongate the white section of the stalk.  My favorite leeks?

Mainseason (planted in spring but also decent at overwintering) Tadorna, Pandora, or Lancelot
Overwintering (planted in June/July) Bleu de Solaize whose foliage tinges with purple with frost, and Bandit (ugly, thick stalks with bulbs that will weather any weather and come out on top).

Lets not forget bunching onions.  Hardy Evergreen is my favorite variety of these since I tuck them in corners of the garden and then forget about them.  These overwinter well with a bit of straw mulch, and have minimum mushiness as opposed to less-hardy varieties.

My final allium wish?  To make a small bed of Egyptian Walking Onions, perennial onions who reproduce from small bulbs in the flowerhead that fall to earth and take root.  Yes please.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Germination Testing

I have a seed collection.  It's like a book collection, hard to let a single packet go.  In the case of old seed, I have to make the cut somewhere.  Germination testing is how that cut gets made.  Any seed that doesn't germinate at at least 80% gets given to a friend or tossed into a bare spot in the garden One Straw Revolution style.  This is inspired by how I test seed for work in January of each year before ordering seed for the year, now applied to my home seed collection.

To test the seed, I sprinkle some out on a damp paper towel.  Then I count them and write this number, the variety name, and the year of the seed packet on the front of a plastic ziplock ("26 seeds Ruby Red Chard 2013" for example).  Don't forget to record the day you start the test, so you know how long it took the chard to sprout, if it ever does!  Then, I roll up the paper towel like a taquito and pop it in the ziploc.  Check daily for sprouting (even for stuff that normally takes a week to sprout, because you need to let some oxygen into the bag).

Put the seed somewhere warm.
Count how many germinate.  This is when you will be glad you know how many seeds you sprinkled (especially for tiny seed such as lettuce) because all the germinating sprouts and roots make it hard to count the total seed number.

I generally don't test seed that is just 1 or 2 years old and is something I know has high germination for several years (brassicas like kale, cabbage, and broccoli, or long-lived flower seed for example).  That is of course, if I have stored the seed properly.  Properly means at least out of intense heat and high humidity.  Seeds store best in cool temperatures without lots of fluctuations.

At Garden Dreams, we store our seeds in airtight Cambro food storage containers from the restaurant supply store.  In with the seed packets we pop a packet of desiccant (those little white silica gel packets that come in new show boxes and are labeled "DO NOT EAT") to keep out moisture and keep the Cambro containers in a spare fridge.  I pull the seed out of the fridge once a week, let it come to room temperature for an hour before opening, seed my flats, and then put the containers back in the fridge.  The rest of the year, they just stay in the fridge.  

At home, I don't use the fridge (except for wildflower or paw paw seeds which need a period of cold). I just use a cool room and old tins for seed packet storage.  

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Craving Green Things

These photos of emerging rhubarb and asparagus are from April of last year, but MAN am I ready for spring.  I need to find a way to embrace winter more.  Winter brings many lovely things...snow banks, snuggling up with a book, a period of rest, soups.  But when the gray and cold drag on, I begin chomping at the bit for green growth and thawing soil.  And it's been sunny lately, so I can't really complain about that!

I started some seed flats in our basement though, and the shallots have just germinated so maybe that will soothe my winter spirit.  In the meantime, I have never appreciated our houseplants more.  Our christmas cactus and one of our begonias are about to bloom and I can't wait!

Victoria rhubarb emerging last spring

Asparagus (variety unknown) and Mache last spring