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Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ 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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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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There are many firsts that we cherish: First crush, first kiss, and of course, first pullet egg from your new chickens.

You remember where you found it, what time it was, and how you first tweeted about it.

It was the morning of August 2nd, tucked away in a corner next to the water tower. It was smaller than a small supermarket egg, but cute! The shell was like 50 grit sandpaper with bumps, and I felt sorry for the hen who laid it.

Discovering our first chicken egg

Our first egg in the new hen house!

This is the first time that I have had chickens since I was a boy. These are my wife’s first chickens.

Closeup of our first chicken egg.

These free-ranging beauties are hard at work to take care of us!

What happened to the egg you might ask? Sunny side up and shared so we got to enjoy it together 🙂

We have gotten a pullet egg per day since the first was laid three days ago. Because hens are supposed to start laying small eggs only once every 3-4 days, it stands to reason that we have three hens that have started to produce. None of our 11 chickens (all about 22 weeks old) have cockledoodledooed, so we presume that they are all girls!

Let the omelets  begin!

P.S. We won’t fail to say “Thank You” to our girls every time we collect eggs.

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Here’s an update on our first season garden at our new digs. We enjoy and appreciate comments (including constructive criticism) so don’t hold back on your impressions 🙂

But first, a bird’s eye view of the garden with our Plangarden layout. Click on the image to get the larger size:

Plangarden's Veggie Garden July18 Status

Here's our garden plan as of July 18, 2010

Starting from the top and moving somewhat left-to-right, here are our garden pics starting with our “Tower of Potatoes”:

Roy inspecting our potato tower which is beginning to blossom!

Roy inspecting our potato tower which is beginning to blossom!

Next is the red Kennebec potato and Yin-Yang shelling bean “boxless” plot. A couple of *huge* rocks stuck out of the ground and were removed, leaving large divets. We thought why not fill it with soil and just make a “normal” bed? The potatoes are doing well but we had problems with this plot for the beans. Roy suspects that root-knot nematodes affected bean germination:

Yin Yang Shelling Bean and Kennebec Potatoes in background

Yin Yang shelling beans and four Kennebec potato plants in rear of bed

Our melon and watermelon patch is going nuts! Good thing we provided lots of “crawl area” for the vines in between boxes (~4-5ft). The “Far North” melon (~65 days) already has fruit the size of a baby’s head. The “Golden Midget” (~70 days) watermelon has some fruit about the size of small apples. This 3-pounder’s rind is supposed to turn golden yellow when ready to harvest – can’t get easier than that! As for the “Sugar Lee”, we have had lots of trouble germinating this baby which is supposed to produce 15-18 pounders. Only one plant is growing vigorously, albeit slowly. But if it succeeds, we may be harvesting watermelons through October!

Melon and Watermelon Patch

Melon and watermelon tendrils have draped well over the sides of garden boxes!

The Yin-Yang shelling beans grown in this box are thriving; so are the cukes “Dragon’s Egg” (technically a melon) and “Straight Eight”.

Yin Yang Beans and Cucumbers

Thriving Yin Yang shelling beans and cucumbers in rear

Royal Burgundy beans in the neighboring box are also doing well though surprisingly not as prolific as I had expected (we’ve only had 1 meal and it’s mid-July!). Suspect a small varmit has been visiting. Roy’s looking to see if the Butternut squash have developed fruit (not yet).

Roy inspecting Butternut Squash and Royal Burgundy Beans

Roy looking for Butternut squash fruit. Royal Burgundy beans in foreground

We love it when a stray seed or two goes from soil to compost and back to new soil. These two beautiful purple Amaranth plants are “squatting” in between the bell peppers. We didn’t have the heart to remove them, and the peppers don’t seem to mind it (yet). We will probably harvest the Amaranth leaves for salad and not let them get too large. In the rear of the box are a gorgeous sweet Armenian cucumber (“Metki White Serpent”) and two prolific straightneck yellow summer squash plants.

Bell peppers, Armenian cucumber, Yellow squash & Amaranth

Amaranth popped out of nowhere but don't seem to bother the bell peppers

We think our tomato plants are probably the most spoiled on the planet. Some would probably have abandoned them long ago, but not us. Well, not Roy. I nearly gave up, but acquiesced to Roy’s insistence on buying the black shade cloth that blocks 60% of the sun (~$50) and a misting system (~$25) to cool down the tomatoes in the middle of the day. Since the temps started climbing in the upper 90’s to 100’s in mid-June, these babies have been suffering from blossom drop. I also used old muslin fabric to protect the western side. We had our first attack of tobacco hornworms, but now have them under control, thanks to our chickens 🙂

Heirloom Tomato garden box

Doing everything we can to salvage our heirloom tomatoes from extreme heat

Our last veggie box houses the corn. We sowed two different varieties with different days-to-harvest times about a week apart to further stagger the harvest. We also sowed climbing beans about 2 weeks after planting the corn so that the stalks would be larger than the bean plant. This looks successful so far.

Corn provides trellis for pole beans

We staggered planting of two different corn varieties

Pole bean plant climbing up corn stalk

Pole bean plant climbing up corn stalk

Our first attempt at upside-down tomato plants have not been successful, probably because of the high temps that have overheated the plastic paint bucket containers. The “Celebrity” tomato plant has died, but “Early Girl” is still hanging in there, and produced two ripe (albeit small) fruit. The cloth you see is what I used to cover the plants to protect them from too much sun:

Upside Down Tomatoes & Thai Basil

Upside-down tomatoes may have broiled in those plastic buckets. Thai basil on top.

Finally, here’s the big picture showing our recently-built (final) chicken coop on the left (click on the image for larger pic). We’re still adding more plants, sorely needing ornamentals, but we have had to prioritize. Hopefully next year, we’ll have more grapevines, landscaped paths around the fence, more flowers and attractive shrubs.

Plangarden's veggie garden and coop mid-July 2010

Our veggie garden and coop in the heat of the summer.

Quick flashback to May 1st, just 2 1/2 months ago:

Finished Building Veggie Garden Boxes

Construction of veg garden was a Herculean effort, thanks to abundant rocks, most of which had long been cleared out of this photo

And here it is the morning of April 1st, just 3 1/2 months ago, with snow-covered Mt. St. Helena in the background. It looks idyllic here (gee why did you ruin your view?), but the shrubs you see are a fire hazard (chamise or “greasewood”), and the overgrown former lawn was teeming with yellow star thistle!

View of Mt. Saint Helena from our backyard

A vegetable garden was but a dream in early Spring ...

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As many chicken owners know, these wonderful, food-providing creatures can also be frustratingly destructive. Lush green lawns can quickly turn to wasteland. Fresh chicken poop is too potent a fertilizer to use and can quickly “burn” grassy areas and gardens. Chickens also love taking dust baths, creating large cozy divets – which can be problematic for people who don’t care much for moon landscapes!

Cultivating chicken garden allows hens to feast on greens

We plant hulless oats for our chicken garden

Using a chicken-wire frame shown in the above picture, we can cultivate a “chicken garden” to allow greens to grow undisturbed in our chicken pen until the plants are more mature. When the area is ready, we can either remove all or just part of the frame to let the chooks go wild and feast on the greens.

Chickens feasting on hulless oats in our chicken garden

Chickens feasting on hulless oats while part of their garden remains protected

The above area is quickly laid to waste within 24 hrs, but provides a great source of nutrition for our hens. This frame allows us to cultivate gardens in different parts of their pen. The hulless oats shown above took about 1 1/2 months to grow to that size, so we’re looking for other greens that grow faster and are just as attractive a food to our chooks.

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