Wednesday, November 30, 2011

This week in the garden: Nov. 31, 2011

Well, I skipped last week's update due to the Thanksgiving holiday!  Luckily, this time of year, the garden isn't changing much.  The greens are continuing to grow, and I still have a few flowers blooming, much to the delight of the local bee population.  The blueberry bushes finally turned a lovely shade of red--they make a fantastic edible landscape choice. This week I harvested a basketful of tatsoi plants to put into an asian soup.  They were fantastic!

Daisies still blooming late November.
Blueberry bush turning red
Tatsoi harvested.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chicken Chatter: Meet the chickens

My garden just wouldn't be the same without my five hens, so it is only fitting that they are each introduced to you!  In pecking order:

Sunshine is a Buff Orpington hen, who loves to pose for the camera.  She is one of my friendliest chickens, and the first to come running when I come to see them.  She has superior treat snatching abilities: no matter how hard I try to give another chicken a treat, she usually ends up grabbing it first.  She's pretty quiet, clucking occasionally.

 I am actually not sure who is 'head hen'.  Pebbles and Sunshine seem like they are tied for first to me--but then again, I am no expert on chicken social protocol.  Pebbles is a Jersey Black Giant hen.  These chickens are known for their size, and Pebbles is the largest chicken in my flock. Her bright red comb and wattles provide a lovely contrast to her black/blue feathers.

Johnny Cash
Like Pebbles, Johnny Cash is also a Jersey Black Giant hen.  She is unusual in that her comb and wattles are black rather than red.  Because of this anomaly, she was named Johnny Cash in honor of the famous singer's dress code.  Johnny Cash and Pebbles seem less fond of their human caretakers, compared to the other chickens.  While they tolerate our presence, they are the most resistant to being picked up. 

June is also a Buff Orpington hen.  She is much more shy and timid than Sunshine, and it is probably this characteristic that has resulted in her low standing in the pecking order.  Sunshine, Pebbles, and Johnny Cash make a close gang of 3, and it is clear that June is not part of this clique.  She makes up for her low social prowess, with magnificent acrobatic skills--I sometimes call her 'ninja chicken'.

Last in the pecking order, but first in my heart, is Angel.  She is a Salmon Favorelle hen.  This breed's personality has been described as 'quirky', and Angel is no exception.  She is by far the most friendly, entertaining, vocal, and flat-out weird chicken in the flock.  Everything she does is weird or awkward: she runs weird, she talks weird, she drinks weird, she eats weird, she scratches weird, etc.  I think it is her bizarre antics that have caused her to be a social outcast with the other chickens.  But it is ok: Angel seems completely unaware of her social standing, and even if she is aware, she doesn't appear to care.  She is very friendly to her human caretakers. For example, if I am sitting Angel likes to hop up on my knee and engage me in 'chicken talk'.  This chicken certainly marches to the beat of her own drummer.

This week in the garden: Nov 17, 2011

Well, it is that season again in North Carolina: very cold days interspersed with warm days.  Yesterday the temperature was in the upper 70's.  But a few days before, the night temperature dropped below freezing.

The pepper plants finally died, but I harvested many peppers off of them right before their final day.

At this point, the lettuce is looking lush and the other greens (tatsoi, kale, collards) are all doing well.
Mixed lettuce
I planted a few cilantro seeds this fall as an experiment.  All of the cilantro I plant in the spring bolts really quickly when the temperature warms.  But, this fall crop of cilantro is doing well and has shown no signs of bolting!
Fall Cilantro

Hairy vetch seeds were scattered over a few beds as a green manure a few weeks ago.  In our climate, it should overwinter.  Here it is now:
Hairy vetch cover crop
And here is a close up of hairy vetch:
Hairy vetch cover crop
And our chickens continue laying eggs for us every day!  The golf ball was put in there to 'inspire' the chickens to lay in the nesting box.  So far every egg has been laid in the box--they are smart little ladies.
Salmon favorelle egg!

Harvest photos: remembering summer

With many plants in the garden starting to die off now, it is easy to forget how wonderful it was to harvest vegetables in the spring and summer.  I looked back at my pictures for some inspiration, and to remind myself of how bountiful my garden was.  This was definitely helpful as I am now in the middle of planning next year's garden!

Here are some typical harvests from my garden during the warmer months of this year:

Yukon gold potatoes, cucumbers and zucchini.

Red potatoes, zuchhini, ground cherries, tomatoes, cucumbers.

I pruned the basil and ended up with this huge basket! I had
about 30 basil plants, and used them to make pesto for the freezer.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Chicken Chatter: Our baby chicks

I decided that a small flock of chickens would be a productive and beneficial addition to our vegetable garden.  If you are interested in raising chickens for the first time, I strongly recommend checking out  I spent a ton of time on their site before we decided to get the chicks, and I feel like they helped me immensely.

My husband and I spent 2 weeks constructing a chicken coop before we picked up our chicks at the local feed store.  Every spring, our local feed stores and farm and garden supply stores get shipments of baby chicks for their customers to purchase.  It's a good way to get just a few chicks (if you order by mail, there is a minimum number of chicks you can purchase).  Call the store ahead of time to find out what breeds they have available.

We originally wanted to get 4 chickens--2 jersey black giants and 2 buff orpingtons. But they also had salmon faverolles when we got there, so we decided to get one of those too!  I strongly discourage 'impulse' chicken buying, but we ended up loving our little salmon faverolle.  So here is our little flock of 5, in their brooder (a cardboard box).

Baby Jersey Giants, Buff Orpingtons, and Salmon Favorelle.
We loved them!  They were much more active than I would have expected for chicks that are only a few days old.  We checked on them very frequently and gave them attention.  Baby chicks are delicate and need to be checked on multiple times a day.

They weren't scared of us at all and let us pet them and pick them up.  I was particularly fond of the salmon favorelle, who is very energetic and fun to watch.  She's the yellow chick at the top of the above picture.  The two black ones are the jersey black giants and the two buff ones are the buff orpingtons. 
  Stay tuned! Our chickens (now adults) will be introduced soon!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

This week in the garden: Nov 10, 2011

Not much has changed in the garden this week.  The temperature warmed up a bit, and the peppers seem to really be doing well. 

Here are some things that I harvested over the weekend: Bell pepper, cayenne pepper, jalapeno pepper, chili pepper, basil, marigolds.  Don't worry--I just used the marigolds for decoration, not for food.
Weekend harvest.
The tatsoi, collards, kale, and lettuce are all doing well.
And the chickens have been enjoying the cooler weather during their outdoor time.
Buff Orpington Hen
How does your garden grow?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Garden Organization: Reflecting on last season

As a vegetable gardener, it is important to keep track of what you grow each year.  And, it is equally important to track whether or not you liked it!

With the weather cooling, and garden activities slowing down, it is the perfect time to sit down and reflect on last year's garden.  Here are some questions to consider asking yourself:
  • What did you grow? 
  • What variety did you grow? 
  • Did you like the flavor?
  • Was it productive?
  • Would you grow that variety again?
  • Anything you would change? - For example, did you plant too few or too much?
Hopefully, you already wrote down where you planted each vegetable and how many plants you had in spring.  But if not, now would be a good time to answer those questions too!

If you are like me, you won't remember the answers to these questions when spring rolls around, so I find it most helpful to write the answers down.  This would be a great time to invest in a notebook to be your garden journal or, if you are tech-savvy, create a garden folder on your computer.  I am a bit of a rebel, so I actually keep some information in a notebook, and some information on my computer.

Here is an example of a spread sheet I created to document my opinion of last year's garden:
Spreadsheet to track garden performance
I like having this information in an electronic spreadsheet because it is easy to sort the information by whether or not I want to grow it again, or alphabetically.

By having a written record of this information, I can more easily plan next year's garden. 

Did you have any varieties that you loved or hated this year?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Compost: basics

I have had more than one person tell me that they would love to compost, but thought it sounded too complicated.  So instead, they just threw away all of their food waste and other compost materials.

Well, I'm here to tell you that anyone, anywhere can compost! 

A passive compost pile is easy, and even if you do it 'wrong', it is much better than sending that organic material to the landfill!  It is better for the environment, your garden, AND your wallet (why buy compost when you can make it yourself?).

Where to compost:

When picking a location to compost, keep in mind that you will be visiting this pile fairly frequently.  You want it to be somewhere convenient, but preferably not too close to the door/house (the pile may not be pretty!).
Use wood pallets to make composter
You can buy a fancy composter at a hardware store, or you can make your own out of pretty much anything.  For example, I attached 3 old pallets together.  Or you can just make a pile in your yard, without any containment.  If you don't have a yard, you can compost in a tub under your sink.  With compost, the possibilities are endless.
Composter made out of wood pallets
After you pick where you will compost, you just add compostable materials to it.  Anything that you would consider biodegradable can probably be composted.

What to compost:
  • Brown yard waste (dried leaves, pine straw, twigs, etc.)
  • Green yard waste (grass clippings, pulled vegetable plants, etc.)
  • Kitchen waste (vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee and tea grounds)
  • Household waste (tissues, scrap paper, newspaper, toilet paper rolls, etc.)
  • Livestock manure (from chickens, cows, pigs, goats, etc.)
What NOT to compost:
  • Animal products (meat, fat, dairy)
  • Human or pet feces

How I compost:

To make collecting compost easier, you can keep a container with a lid in the kitchen, specifically for compost.  If flies become a problem, you can keep the container in the freezer.  I just bring out the container, add the vegetable scraps to it as I cook, then put it back in the freezer. Once it is full, I take the compost container outside and empty it into the big pile.  I then add a few handfuls of dried leaves on top. Dried leaves are always a great addition after adding kitchen scraps!

Any garden or yard waste also goes into the compost pile: dead plants, no longer productive vegetables, fallen leaves, etc.

The pile can be turned (mixed up) every few days, every month, or never.  The more you turn it, the faster it will compost, but it will all eventually compost even if you don't turn it. 

And that's it!  Once you learn what can be composted, and get in the habit, it's actually quite easy.

For more information on compost, the NC State horticultural department has a great publication here.

Hot compost
The complication in composting comes with getting the ratios of carbon and nitrogen correct, and maintaining the correct moisture level, in HOT composting.  Ideally, with the right conditions, the compost pile will heat up enough to kill weed seeds, pests, and disease; and it composts REALLY fast.  But slow compost is better than no compost!  So if you don't have the time to research hot composting, don't worry about it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Vegetable Highlight: Tatsoi

Tatsoi Plant

"Tatsoi? What the heck is that?"

That was my husband's reaction to the new and exotic vegetable that we picked up from our CSA last year.  Neither one of us had heard of this green plant that resembles bok choi.

After falling in love with the tender leaves of tatsoi, I decided it was a must have addition for my garden.  This fall (mid-September), I direct sowed some tatsoi seeds in my garden.  I watered them a few times when the seedlings were tiny, but other than that, I've let them be.
My tatsoi 'patch'

Now, the plants are incredibly healthy looking, and close to a harvestable size.  I'm sure if they'd been given a better location, and more attention (water, love, etc.), the plants would be doing even better!

About Tatsoi
Given its name and appearance, I was not surprised to find out that tatsoi is an asian green of the brassica family, grown for its leaves. Started from seed, it can be harvested in just 50 days, and it is a cool weather crop hardy down to 15 degrees F.  It will even survive snow!

How to Grow Tatsoi
Tatsoi can be direct sown in the garden in spring or fall, but it does best in the fall.  Because it is cold hardy, and matures quickly, there is some flexibility in when it can be planted here in the piedmont.

Suggested planting times (direct sow):  August 1 - September 15; March 1 - April 1
Planting depth: 1/4 to 1/2 inches
Spacing after thinning: 6"
Sun/Shade: Sun to partial sun
Days to maturity: 45-50 days
Soil: Not too picky, but prefers fertile, well drained soil
Water: Frequently (mulch to maintain moisture)

Harvest: Harvest entire plants of tatsoi, or try harvesting the outer leaves as you need them.

Where to find tatsoi: Look for tatsoi seeds from local sources.  I purchased my tatsoi seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Company.

Culinary Uses
Tatsoi is a mild green, similar in flavor to bok choi.  Young leaves can be harvested and used raw in salads; while older leaves can be used in stir fries, soups, or sauteed.  One of my favorite ways to use tatsoi, is sauteed with garlic and mushrooms.

Recipes that use tatsoi
Grilled Halibut with Tatsoi and Spicy Thai Chiles 
Chilled Wilted Tatsoi Salad Recipe with Sesame-Ginger Dressing 
Gingery Sauteed Tatsoi with Tofu Steaks

Friday, November 4, 2011

Chicken Chatter: Tour the Chicken Coop

Our chickens have been enjoying life in their coop for about 5 months now.  I thought I would share pictures of the coop I designed to help inspire others thinking about backyard chickens!  The coop is elevated off of the ground, and has a footprint of 4'x8'--this should be enough room for up to 8 chickens.

Inside view of the coop (with young chickens!). A feeder and
waterer are located on the side farthest from the nesting boxes.
You can also see one of the 2x2s we used as roosts.

Here you can see some external features of the coop (and
my handy helper!).

Here is a view of the open nesting boxes.

This entire wall is a hinged door to make cleaning easier. Also,
the nesting boxes have a hinged door for easy egg access.

The coop door folds down onto the ladder, forming a landing
for the chickens to walk out onto.

The chickens enjoy the chicken-height window in the coop.

They learned to use their ladder quickly!
So far I am very happy with the coop. I am confident that it is safe and predator proof.  The floor of the coop has a water-resistant layer, and right now we're using sand instead of wood chips.  The sand stays cool and dries really quickly, so I think it is a good choice for bedding especially in the summer.

One thing I may do differently is put one more window on the run side of the coop so the chickens have more opportunities to look outside in the evening.

Want more information on building your own backyard chicken coop for any size flock? Check out the coop design page on the Backyard Chickens website!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

This week in the garden: Nov 3, 2011

This past week has brought some colder weather to NC.  At my house, we dipped below freezing (28F) for the first time on Oct 30.  Presently, I still have some hot and sweet peppers, brussel sprouts, and basil from summer in the garden.

Cayenne Pepper
The brief cold spell didn't bother the peppers or sprouts; however, the basil experienced damage as a result.  (Note to self: harvest all basil before any chance of frost!)
Basil-frost damaged.
My fall crops are doing well!  I direct sowed the seeds a little later than I had planned (mid-September), but I'll be enjoying lettuce and tatsoi any day now.
Fall crop - Tatsoi
The cool weather has also brought new life to the marigolds that I planted in the garden in spring.
Marigolds in fall.
And drum roll please... Three of our five chickens started laying over the last week!  (We got them as chicks on May 1.)  So far we've had a dozen eggs.  I love the variety of eggs that we get from our mixed flock.
Our first buff orpington egg.

 How does your garden grow?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Native Bee Houses: Encouraging the native bee population

Until this year, I didn't understand the importance of native pollinators. I found the following passage from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service:

Native bee box.
'Worldwide, there are an estimated 20,000 species of bees, with approximately 4,000 species native to the United States. The non-native European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the most important crop pollinator in the United States. However, because of disease and other factors the number of managed honey bee hives in the United States has declined by 50 percent since 1950. During this same period, the amount of crop acreage requiring bee pollination has continued to grow. This makes native pollinators even more important to the future of agriculture.

Native bees provide free pollination services and are often specialized for foraging on particular flowers, such as squash, berries or orchard crops. This specialization results in more efficient pollination and the production of larger and more abundant fruit from certain crops. The pollination done by native bees contributes an estimated $3 billion worth of crop production annually to the U.S. economy.'
Wow! Native pollinators are really important, and unfortunately in decline. Last spring, I decided to try to encourage them at my home.  Kate at Living the Frugal Life recently posted about native bee boxes.  She includes links to the Xerces society that include a PDF about native bees and how to make habitats for them. One method is native bee boxes (which I made). There are also bumble bee houses, which I'd like to make sometime too.

You can make native bee boxes out of thick pieces of untreated lumber.  I happened to have some 4x4 posts, so I used that.  I cut 6 of them with a miter saw so that they were roughly 8" tall, and the top had a 30 degree angle.

Blocks cut to become native bee boxes.
Next, I drilled holes in them.  You can do this methodically, but I chose to put the holes in randomly.  I used drill bits ranging in size from 3/16" to 3/8" and I drilled the holes to about 3.5" deep.  Different bees prefer different sizes of holes, so I thought a combination of sizes would have the most success.
Native bee box with holes ranging from 3/16 to 3/8".
After drilling the holes, I attached a roof to the angled end.  I just used a piece of wood that was lying around, cut it so that it had a 1-2" overhang, and I attached it with one screw.  The roof will help keep the nests dry in rain.

Native bee box, ready to install.
At this point it is ready to install--one of my easier projects!  Apparently the bees like to have the holes face the morning sun, so I positioned them around the garden facing the south east.  I attached them to the porch and trellises with a screw through the top of the roof in early spring.
Native bee house with a resident!
Within a week, a few of the holes in the house looked like they had been plugged up, which seemed curious to me.  I did a little bit of research and found out that many solitary bees make a nest in a cavity, lay an egg, and then seal off the entrance.  Later, the baby bee hatches, eats nectar left by its mommy bee, and then emerges from the sealed cavity.  How cool is that?

I think the bees make an excellent addition to our garden. :)  We are helping the environment, encouraging the declining population of native pollinators, AND providing our vegetable garden with pollinators.  That sounds like a win-win for everyone involved!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Starting a Home Vegetable Garden

When I first decided I wanted a vegetable garden 3 years ago, I faced many questions:
  • What do I want to grow?
  • Do I want to buy plants, or start from seed?
  • When do I plant?
  • How do I plant?
  • How often do I water?
  • Is that a good bug or a bad bug?
  • Is that a weed or one of my seedlings?

Needless to say, I was slightly overwhelmed.  Luckily, however, I started small.  That first spring, I planted five 4'x4' raised beds.  And I tried a wide variety of plants and techniques.  Some of the crops I tried were complete and utter failures--so don't be discouraged if this happens to you!  Other crops did great.

Gardening is a dynamic process, so you have to be willing to try new things and accept failures before you will find what works for you and your space.  Here are a few general tips that I would share with a first-time gardener:

Tips for first-time home vegetable gardeners:
  • Start small--Only plant an area that you can manage, remembering that gardening is hard work and requires frequent watering and weeding.  A single 4'x4' bed may be plenty for you.
  • Plant varieties that do well in your area --Buy seeds from a local seed company, or buy plants from the farmers market.  Ask gardener friends what varieties they have had success with, or refer to publications like this blog that describe gardening in your specific region.
  • Compost!--If the area you are going to plant has poor soil, it is important that you add compost to amend it.  You can either make your own, or buy compost locally.
  • Raised beds or hills--Plants do best in rich, loose soil, with plenty of drainage.
  • Make it a family project--This way everyone is involved and proud of the garden, and the labor is spread between multiple individuals.  Gardening is a great, healthy activity for kids!
  • Don't be afraid of failure!--You won't know what works for you and your yard until you try!
As part of this blog, I plan on describing when, how, and what I plant, which should provide a good guide for home gardeners in central North Carolina.  But keep in mind, that every garden and person is different, so be adventurous in your garden!
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