Sunday, April 14, 2013

Lasagna gardening

Our weekend has been pretty busy with gardening. Of all the methods for raised bed gardening that I’ve read about and used, lasagna gardening seems to work the best for me.

What is lasagna gardening? Simply put, it’s layering materials into a raised bed. The bed can be framed with lumber, logs, rocks, or just be a raised mound. I prefer it to be framed so that I don’t lose any materials in hard rains, but if done properly, even mounds should work out well and there will be minimal loss.

The first thing you need to do is decide where the raised bed will be. It should be in a sunny location for most vegetables and flowers, although you can put it in a shady spot if you are growing shade-tolerant plants.

Lay out the bed according to your needs. Squares can do well for limited space. I use rectangles that are 4 feet wide and 8 to 10 feet long. Four feet is as wide as you need any raised bed. This width makes it possible to reach to the center of the bed for planting, plant care, and harvesting, without actually walking in the bed and risking compacting the soil.

I use untreated 1x4s and 1x6s for beds. 1x4s generally need to be stacked to get the soil depth you need, but they are all quite inexpensive at the lumber yard. Three of them (that’s enough to construct one bed) run under $25. Simply cut one in half, if it’s an 8 footer, then nail or screw the long ones to the short ones so that you have the rectangle.  Now is when the “lasagna” part comes in.

These beds can be placed right on top of existing grass. You are going to lay down a layer of cardboard for the bottom. Make sure it goes from end to end and side to side, completely covering the grass. Next, put in a layer of composted material mixed with well aged manure or fresh rabbit manure. Make it pretty deep because it will pack down a bit with watering. Lay on old newspaper, but none of the shiny ads. Those take too long to decompose in the bed. (They are fine for the compost heap, though.) Again, side to side and end to end…complete coverage of 2 or 3 thicknesses of the newspaper.

Now, you can add soil and compost again, pretty thick. About 3 inches. Then, another layer of newspaper. Wet the whole thing down very well until the newspaper will tear easily. Now, you can plant your tomatoes, peppers, flowers or anything else, even seeds, simply by breaking through the newspaper in the spot where you want the plant to be, then tucking the paper back around the plant, or leaving it a bit open so seeds will sprout through it.

Final step is to layer on a thick layer of leaf mulch or other easily composted mulch, right up next to the plants or seed holes. Water again to get the mulch wet, and you’re done.

This method helps prevent weeds and grasses from sapping nutrients from you plants. It helps keep the plants cleaner. And, the layers will naturally compost as the year goes on so that next year, all you have to do is add a layer of newspaper, plant the bed, and add new mulch.

You will find that you water less often because these materials help retain moisture the plants need. They also feed the plants while they are decomposing and they attract earthworms to the bed, which are further beneficial to your plants because they produce nutrient-rich castings and they aerate the soil. We found probably a dozen earthworms while we were working on just one of these beds Saturday.

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Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Chicken feeder

Raising chickens can be very rewarding. You can buy little chicks, provide them with a warm place to live for a couple of months, give them plenty of food and water, and wind up with some pullets that will eventually produce fresh eggs daily for you.

Or, you can buy pullets or full grown laying hens to get a quicker start on the egg production. I’ve done it both ways. The advantage with hens is that, even though they will cost you more to begin with, they will start laying eggs right away. Your main responsibility will be to provide them with a shelter that is safe from predators and bad weather, a place where they can scratch around for bugs and seeds, and plenty of fresh water.

Chicken feeders can be pretty easy to build if you want to give your hens free choice feed. We used a party tray you can get at the dollar store (it has a round cup in the middle with four pockets around the outside), a five gallon bucket with lid and handle, a 1 inch paddle drill bit, a 2 inch bolt with nut and a couple of washers, and a drill bit that matched the bolt.

We drilled four holes that would line up with the four pockets around the outside of the tray using the 1 inch paddle bit. Then we drilled a hole in the dead center of the bucket and in the dead center of the round cup in the middle of the party tray. We put a washer on the bolt, ran it up through both the tray and the bucket, put another washer on it  then put the nut on it. Don’t go too tight or you’ll break the tray.

This feeder can sit on the ground or be hung from a hook or chain so the chickens can eat from the tray. You just fill it with feed and the feed will run down into the tray without running all over the ground. Even if the feed gets a little “log jammed”, the hens will actually peck at the sides of the bucket and jar it loose. Pretty smart, I think!

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Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Keeping backyard chickens

A lot of homeschool families raise small livestock, if they have the space to do so, as well as raising a garden. When we were homeschooling, it was practically a given that we, as well as others, would have goats, chickens, and rabbits, that homeschool moms would wear denim jumpers, and that a trip to the grocery store would incorporate a math lesson.

I really don’t know if any of that has changed, but I’d be willing to bet that some of it still holds true. These days, homeschoolers aren’t the only ones who are seeking to be more self-reliant, though. A lot of folks are investing in backyard chickens, rabbits, and even a dairy goat or two to give them the meat and milk/milk products they need.

Many towns will allow a handful of hens to be kept in the backyard. They are generally quiet, and if they are properly cared for, don’t produce an offensive odor for the neighbors to complain about. Those who live in the country may be able to raise even more chickens along with other small livestock, provided they aren’t living in a neighborhood with a homeowner’s association that forbids such activities.

Chickens are just about the easiest way to provide your family with a protein source in the form of eggs. They will average an egg a day, though there will be some “down time” when they don’t lay at all or very little. They are also a good source of meat protein when you need to cull some lazy hens or you have too many roosters.

Hatching eggs is a good project for the whole family. Through this, your children can learn all about a chicken’s reproduction from rooster and hen to egg to chick.

Chickens are also very entertaining. Watching them chase an elusive flying bug or come running at breakneck speeds when you have some treats for them is delightful. Sometimes they’ll lay in a dusty spot and fluff and scratch until they’ve very nearly changed colors due to the amount of dust they’ve thrown on themselves. (This is also a clue that the chicken may be fighting some external parasites and it’s time for a good dusting with diatomaceous earth.)

Caring for chickens is a pleasant activity. Listening to them “sing” as you toss grain out to them has a calming effect. You can also throw all your kitchen scraps to them except for bones. They will turn it into rich, valuable fertilizer for your garden or flower beds.

The biggest concern is keeping predators away from them.

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Monday, April 01, 2013

Old time days festival

I am surely hoping that this week will be the very last of the cold weather here. We are due for rain storms and some parts of the state may even receive sleet, but by the weekend it’s supposed to be up to a high of 72 degrees F. I can hardly wait for that!

If the forecast holds true, we’ll be attending a little fun day at the feed store up the road from us. These nice folks put something like this on about 2 or 3 times a year. This one is called “Old Ways From Old Days”. Events will include spinning wool, twining, kraut making, cheese making, soap making, and so many more old time crafts I don’t dare try to name them all.

Along with those activities, they are offering free kettle corn and fresh pork rinds, and hamburgers and hot dogs to eat. There will be a live band (I really don’t know who it is yet) and local folks will have crafts for sale. The owner invited me to set up a table for free and offer homemade bread for sale, so that’s what I’ll be doing.

It starts at 10 AM and ends at 2 PM. Not a very long festival, but the feed store owners also run that business as well as own farm animals that need to be tended to. This isn’t one of the new, uptown feed stores that offers sparkling new riding lawn mowers for sale. These folks offer feed, seed, fertilizers, and groceries, along with a few animal meds and equipment. Oh, and they sell bait, too.

I hope there is a big turnout for this. I’d love to see children there, learning about how things used to be done and what kinds of entertainment there was before the invention of the video game and the i-devices. I think this could easily be rolled into part of their history lessons.

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Cool weather gardening

I have begun my gardening for this year, even though we are expected to have a few more days of wintry temperatures. We got some below-freezing temperatures last week.

I checked today, and the onions and radishes are sprouting. I have also planted sugar pod peas, lettuce, carrots, and kale. These have yet to make their appearance, but I feel confident they will do so in a few days.

These are all considered cool weather crops which makes them fairly safe to plant here in the South, even though we can’t seem to get rid of winter.

I noticed my lemon balm and mint are also starting up in the herb bed, as well as the chives. My asparagus looks pretty pitiful, though. The chickens had scratched among them a lot last year and it almost killed them completely. However, they are trying to grow now. We won’t be cutting any fresh, delicious asparagus from them, though, because they were so severely set by by the chicken damage.

If you have kids, and I assume you do if you’re reading this blog, this would be a great time to get them started on gardening. You can use pots, number 10 cans, plastic milk jugs cut in half, or just about any kind of container to grow small salad vegetables such as radishes, lettuce, and green onions.

You can even just cut into a bag of good potting soil and plant your seeds directly into that, if you want. Shallow rooted plants will do just fine in that. A friend uses half rotted bales of straw or hay for planting. Be sure these are place where the veggies will get lots of sun. Just open up a few spots on the hay, put in a bit of potting soil to help the seeds get started, then watch them grow. As they develop, their roots will take good advantage of the decomposing hay for their nutrients. You will probably need to water them a little more often than other methods because water tends to flow through the hay, but I’ve seen some awesome plants growing like this.

You can actually plant your tomatoes and peppers in the rotted hay setup and harvest plenty of fresh tomatoes and peppers later. Be sure to cover tender plants such as these this early in the year because they just aren't cold-hardy. You can use old milk jugs with the caps removed (for ventilation) and the bottoms cut out for individual plant “hot caps”.

Small backyard or patio gardening is a great way to introduce your child to the benefits of fresh vegetables and a way to teach them where some of their food really comes from.

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