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Archive for the ‘MyGarden’ Category

We are coming up to our 9th month of raising eleven chickens from chicks (one had to be fast-tracked to chicken heaven because of disease and a broken leg), and enjoying the nutritional and entertainment benefits of having them! For those of you wondering about the cost/benefit of raising chickens (assuming no zoning restrictions in your ‘hood) here’s the Chickenomics:

Chickenomics is about the cost/benefit of keeping chickens

Click on image for larger size. As you'll see, the chickens earn their living!

  • We use an Excel spreadsheet to track daily egg harvest, feed consumption, and any other types of “income” (egg sales to neighbors, if we have surplus) to gauge how much it costs to keep chooks vs. how much we save not having to buy free-range, organic eggs from the supermarket
  • It costs about $35/month to keep 11 hens (not to mention the farm mice) well-fed and happy. Evidently, the days of something costing “chicken feed” are gone! The girls go through about two 50-lb bags of layer feed/month.
  • Our happy (spoiled, even) free-range hens supply about $70-80/month of eggs (price of free range, organic eggs at our local grocer is $4.50-5.00/dozen!). Each hen lays about 5-6 eggs per week in the summer; and about 40% less in the winter.
  • No fear of ‘tainted eggs’ – we’re confident our chooks are healthy and clean. That’s quite a savings!
  • Being around chickens is a boost to your mental health. If you’re ever sad or upset, go to the chicken run, throw them an apple core, and watch the mayhem. *Priceless*
    Indignant Shirley and our third egg. Don't know if she laid it, but she sure looks PO'd. Actually it's just hot (high 90's and she's panting)

    Indignant Shirley and our third egg this past summer.

    Now for the “fixed costs” that were not mentioned above:

  • Fencing, building and materials for the chicken coop was >not< cheap. But we wanted to put something up that was not an eyesore (the coop is in the foreground of our backyard view of the distant mountains – why create a Coopenstein?
  • How much exactly? I can’t remember, I was swooning. Ok, ok, somewhere betw. $1-2K for the 16 sqft brooder coop and the 6x8ft (48 sqft) chicken coop with 3 nesting boxes. Yes we could’ve made it cheaper but didn’t, so don’t take our numbers as the benchmark. However, some finished coops are ridiculously expensive, well into the $2K range for the size we built. We do believe that ours is functionally well-designed, but that’s a separate topic we’ll address in another blog.
  • It took about 4 1/2 months until our chickens started producing eggs, so figure spending about $150 on feed prior to their laying. This cost is quickly recouped, as you’ll see in the spreadsheet above.

The final word – we do not put a lamp in the coop to extend the hens’ laying season, tricking them into laying the same number of eggs as they do during the longer days of summer. First of all, we don’t consume 9-10 eggs/day nor need to sell them for income. We’re always pleased to be able to get a few dollars for them, and our friends are thrilled knowing their inexpensive, fresh eggs come from super-happy hens!

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No, not a blog about cars with defects.  This is about working with our climate to keep our lemon tree alive in the winter!

As is often the case, I want to push the limit as to what I can grow in my microclimate here in Lake County, CA. In this case it is lemons. The summers here are plenty hot, but the winter has too many days when it can dip below freezing. While a mature lemon tree supposedly can handle the winters here, the young ones cannot.

Lemon trees that are between 1-2ft tall are reasonably-priced. I got an Improved Meyer Lemon tree at the end of summer for $25 plus a 30% discount because the nursery was clearing out inventory.  A lemon tree that is big and hardy enough to handle the winters in its first year has to be delivered by truck, and can be $100-200 depending on how large you want it.

Meyer Lemon tree on dolly

Meyer Lemon tree on the go

My answer was to get a small lemon tree and make it mobile. Pictured here is the lemon tree with a dolly that I got when we moved from the coast this year. In the winter I will move it in and out of the garage when the temps fall to the mid to low 30s (F) and below.

Incidentally, make sure you select a dolly that can handle the weight of your potted tree/plant. Some are relatively inexpensive ($10 or less), but these have small wheels and cannot handle a lot of weight. Our lemon tree is quite heavy, so the hand truck/dolly that we used for moving was perfect because it has large wheels and the right weight capacity.

How well will this system work? Well either I will be writing a success story follow-up to this article or crying in the next few months. When writing Plangarden blogs, I want to document successes as well as failures. I leave the perfect garden stories to the TV shows where nothing really ‘goes wrong’.

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There is a morning every fall when the vegetable gardener grabs his/her coffee/tea and heads out into the garden. The harvest is starting to slow up and there is an extra bite of chill in the air. Soon, a white blanket of frost will cover your beds. For some gardeners, it marks the end of the year. For stubborn gardeners like myself, we want fresh, pesticide-free veggies from the backyard, and as few produce as possible from Mexico or New Zealand or Russia where fuels are consumed to haul them thousands of miles to the local grocer. We’re not localvore zealots, but if possible, we want to keep veggies growing until a really hard freeze.

This year, I had to face frost for the first time in over a dozen years. I wanted to build a frost blanket system that I could not only use for short veggies, like lettuce, but also for taller plants like broccoli and cabbages. Next year I will use the same system for a shade cloth to protect veggies from our scorching sun.

Here’s what I came up with:

Frost blanket framing using PVC pipes

Frost blanket framing using PVC pipes

A Quick Math Primer

We will use the forumula > 2∏r < (the circumference of a circle, where ∏=3.14) to determine how much PVC pipe to make a semi-circle over a row. This is just to get started because your semi-circle may be more semi-elliptical to account for taller plants. Let’s simplify ∏ as the number 3.

Therefore, a half circle is 3 times 1/2 the width (i.e. diameter) of your bed, or even simpler, 1.5 x width of the bed. For the above bed where the width is 4ft, the minimum pipe length should be 6 ft (1.5 x 4).

 

Half inch PVC pipe fits well over rebar

Half inch PVC pipe fits well over rebar

Half inch coupler joins PVC pipes

Use a half inch coupler to join PVC pipes.

Low, Med, High, Super High

By using inexpensive half inch couplers, you can adjust the height of this frost blanket system to match the height of the vegetables you are protecting. Remember that you want the blanket to get as close and low to the vegetables as possible without touching them. It’s the warm air pocket that insulates the plants, not the blanket.

My Frost Blanket System

  1. Purchased 10ft x 1/2″ PVC pipe. Easy to bend and cut. Made two lengths of 18in sections off each pipe to use as extensions.
  2. Also bought 1/2″ PVC connectors to put on one end of the pipes. Allows to change the height of the system.
  3. 3/8″ rebar in 1ft sections, but you may want 18″ or 2ft if you have soft ground.
  4. Remay cloth for the frost blanket. It is 67″ and you can buy different lengths. If you need a tall cover, you may need to double the frost blanket as the standard width is 67″ (5ft 7 in.)
Remay cloth for frost protection

Use Remay cloth for frost protection.

Rocks hold down Remay cloth

Rocks hold down Remay cloth. Clips or old garden hose segments fasten to PVC pipe.

Other Frost Management Tips

  • Water often (avoiding the leaves) and well. Water is your veggies’ defense against frost. Keep the ground moist.
  • If you can water with warm water from a garden hose that is out in the sun or if you have a small bed of fall veggies, water with warm water at night before you go to bed.
  • Mulch with hay or newspaper around vegetables to keep soil warm.
  • Don’t forget to remove the blanket if you have a warm day.
  • Instead of using expensive clips to attach the Remay, you could take an old garden hose. Cut 2-3″ lengths and make a slit down the middle so it can go around the PVC pipe.
Remay cloth clip

Remay clips can be bought or made from old garden hose sections slit in half

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Gardeners often spend a fortune on fertilizers during the season to keep plants healthy and well fed. Yet some of us leave the soil unattended in the winter and early spring only to start the cycle all over again.

Crimson Clover patch

Plant cover crops like clover to put nitrogen back in your soil!

A few years back, I became a fan of cover crops to add nitrogen and to keep soils active and healthy during the normally “fallow” season. (Note that I live in an area of California where our growing season is almost year-round. However, there are certain green manures, such as hairy vetch and rye, that are suitable for colder climates, provided they are planted early enough before the winter.) As I was spreading some clover I got to thinking about the cost of cover crops vs fertilizers. The numbers shocked me.

Comparison of fertilizers vs cover crops:

Fertilizer Price Nitrogen Extra Info Price/lb N
Berseem Clover $8/lb seed 125 lb nitrogen/acre 30 lb/acre $1.92/lb
Banner Fava $6/lb seed 150 lb nitrogen/acre 200 lb/acre $8.00/lb
Common Vetch $8/lb seed 110 lb nitrogen/acre 90 lb/acre $6,54/lb
Blood Meal $2/lb 12% none $16.67/lb

Table disclaimer: these figures were taken from a variety of sources that are all subject to some scrutiny. Territorial Seed Company publishes information on cover crops in their catalogs and how much you end up paying for any of the items can vary drastically and how much REAL nitrogen you get from a crop can also vary significantly.

That said, unless your Clover does VERY poorly, you are going to get better results since it is 20 times less expensive with conservative numbers. We purchased Crimson Clover for $1.5 /lb by purchasing 10lbs. Plug in those numbers and we could be paying $0.36/lb of nitrogen.

One important thing to note is that you should choose your cover crops carefully. According to this article in Organic Gardening, some cover crops like rye are allelopathic, meaning that they suppress the growth of neighboring plants. And it’s also important to wait 2-3 wks after turning under your cover crop to make sure that the nitrogen will be available for your veggies.

And now for the punch line: Now I understand the lyrics to “Crimson and Clover”: you are supposed to plant it OVER and OVER! Who woudda known Joan Jett was a gardener! 😉

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We planted our “tater tower” Kennebec potatoes on May 22nd of this year and harvested today – Oct. 8th (~ 4 1/2  months from sowing to harvest). Here is a photo journal of the process of taking it down. But first, lessons learned:

  • Planting about 3 lbs yielded a little over 10 lbs.  Hate to admit it, but this is *pathetic*. We should have gotten at least 6X, ideally 10X. Here’s a Gardenweb discussion on potato yield.  However, we got some really nice large ones, unlike those we planted on the ground.
  • We think some potato seeds rotted in the middle and never made it out to develop plants. Wondering if we should make the tower wide and skinny next year, and packing the straw less tightly to let the plants grow easier through the wire mesh. We found most of the potatoes along the perimeter of the tower.
  • Clay + sand = bricks. We thought the sand would loosen the clay (doh). We will not make that mistake next year! The whole idea of building the tower was to reduce the strain of bending over & digging for potatoes, and minimizing casualties (spade stuck in potato). But there was still too much clay in this structure. We were cheap and did not use enough of the topsoil, nor did we buy seed potatoes especially suited to clay soil.
  • We could have planted twice or even thrice as many potato seeds in this configuration – so next year, we’ll have a denser planting.

 

 

Potato tower July 18

Potato tower in the height of summer - July 18th

 

 

Tater tower right before dismantling wire walls - Oct. 8th

Tater tower right before dismantling wire walls - Oct. 8th

 

 

Pulling apart wire walls of potato tower

Pulling apart wire walls of potato tower

 

 

Demolishing potato tower

Demolishing potato tower was not as easy as we thought

 

 

Digging for golden potatoes

There's gotta be a potato in here somewhere ...

 

 

Finding gold! Potatoes in tater tower

Here's one!

 

 

More golden potatoes

More good-sized golden potatoes

 

 

Potatoes liked to grow along perimeter of tower

Potatoes liked to grow along perimeter of tower

 

 

Tater tower halfway demolished

Tater tower halfway demolished

 

 

Basket was full but not brimming over with potatoes

Basket was full but not brimming over with potatoes

 

 

Tater Tower Froggie

Found 3 frogs in our tower - sorry but you'll have to find another place to live!

 

Here’s a quick video:

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Maybe it is just me, but the other day when some new friends came by and started talking about gardening, I was reluctant to bring them back around the house to show them my vegetable garden. This picture says it all:

Not exactly a veggie gardener's pride and joy -- the transitional ugly garden

We are harvesting and cleaning up summer veggies that were done and transitioning to our fall garden. In other words, I had a very unimpressive, pathetic-looking, veg garden. If you pick the right angle in the height of the summer, I am sure parts of my garden could make Horticulture Magazine or maybe even Gardening How-To Magazine from the National Home Gardening Club. But as plants die back and we taper off watering the melons to get them to sweeten, there is nothing pretty about our garden.

Melon patch in mid-July vs. late Aug.

Our melon patch in mid-July on the left vs. late Aug. on the right

It is an Ugly Veg Garden … that only a gardener could love 🙂

Bush Beans in mid-July vs. late Aug.

Bush Beans in mid-July to the left vs. late Aug. to the right

Once I realized my new friends were true gardeners, we all went back and visited my ugly garden. He confessed that his garden was ugly, too! And think about it. Is an ugly vegetable garden all that bad? Not when you’re harvesting the fruits of your summer labors!

Share your pics and a story about your ugly veg garden and we will add them to our Wall of Ugly Gardens!

P.S.

Just ran across this topical children’s book called The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin. We haven’t read it yet, but it’s got several 5-star reviews on Amazon.

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Now that we’ve moved to a hot, dry climate, we couldn’t wait to grow melons – watermelons and canteloupes. We even bought a popsicle-making kit to handle the harvest overflow (Gigi loves watermelon popsicles). All our melon seeds were purchased at the Seed Bank in Petaluma.

Alas, not all the melons we planted produced sweet, juicy fruit we had anticipated. And despite the incredible vigor of these plants, we did not get as much fruit as we had hoped (so much for those popsicles). Here’s our Plangarden raised bed layout that shows what we planted.

Honeydew Orange Flesh and Charentais were winners!

Honeydew Orange Flesh and Charentais were winners!

“Far North”, suggests that it can be grown in higher latitudes that have shorter growing seasons. Our patch first produced fruit in early July. They looked beautiful. Perhaps we harvested them too late (early- to mid-August), but the puny, starchy canteloupes were like a hybrid of styrofoam and an Idaho potato. We’d probably try them again next year and see what happens if we harvest them earlier. But these melons are so small, less than single serving, and not really worth the effort.

Far North canteloupe harvest

Puny Far North canteloupes were a disappointment. Did we harvest too late?

“Golden Midget” got us all excited. They are beautiful 4-5 lb. watermelons that start out green and then turn deep yellow once they’re ripe. While they were certainly juicy, they lacked any kind of sweetness you’d expect from a home-grown melon. We were sad to admit that the supermarket melons were far superior.

“Honeydew Orange Flesh” was the winner. Biting into the firm, honeydew-type orange flesh feels so sinful – it’s like candy, but not sickeningly sweet. And a close second is “Charentais”, a much smaller fruit with the lighter flesh of a canteloupe.

Honeydew Orange Flesh were firm, like honeydew melons, but sweet like canteloupes!

Honeydew Orange Flesh were firm, like honeydew melons, but sweet like canteloupes!

Chanterais canteloupes in the early morning

And the first runner up is ... the Charentais canteloupe!

We had problems trying to start “Sugar Lee” from seed, and unlike the other melons, it took 2-3 attempts to finally get a plant to grow. We have one fruit (just one!) which looks like it’ll be about 8 lbs. The jury’s still out but I doubt this can outdo our winners.

What could we have done wrong with the other melons? Did we overwater them? Perhaps. But how does this account for the success with the other melons? We did start the plants in rich soil with lots of seasoned horse manure, and fertilized them regularly.

If you grew melons this year, let us know which varieties you loved. And we’d appreciate any tips on improving flavor and harvest 🙂 !

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