Update on my lazy no till beds.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted and I’d love to say that it’s because the garden is in such abundance that I can’t tear myself away! I can’t say that. Sadly, I am learning many lessons this year on our first spring/summer on the homestead. First, it’s a few degrees cooler here than our last place – that may not seem like it would have much bearing but it truly does. Second, we have actually had quite a chilly spring in the Portland metro area and here it is, July 8th, and I am seriously contemplating putting on a sweater! And third, the garden predators are different and I was caught unawares. The birds! The damn birds have been liberating my garden of all of their lovely seedlings. Jerks! But I digress, the real reason for this post is to give an update on my no till/lasagna beds. They work quite well but we have made some important adjustments so I will explain what those are and why they were needed.

IMG_4134.jpgThe first realization came once the grass started growing really aggressively in spring – our grass is very thick and grows at an alarming rate! It became clear that the grass was not happy about being sacrificed to the garden and wanted to take it back. We kept the edges well mowed but it became more and more difficult to keep the grass at bay. We needed a barrier to keep the grass out and the dirt in. We considered building wood frames around the beds but honestly, after only about 5-6 years at the last house the wood was about to need replacing. I didn’t want to have to replace the wood frames constantly so we looked at cinder block. While it may have been a bit more expensive up front, I believe it’s worth it in the long run. 3 Pallets of cinder blocks were able to be delivered to within feet of the beds for just about $400. To me, totally worth it.

IMG_4129We honestly should have done this before starting the beds but it was all an experiment, you know? Live and learn. So they are a bit uneven in places because the beds were already planted when we put the blocks in so we had to kind of gingerly frame the beds without disturbing the goods growing within. We cut strips of cardboard to put around the beds, and the blocks went on top of the cardboard to try to keep the weeds down.

A weed whacker does the trick to keep the surrounding areas nice and trim. I tried planting marigolds and various other plants in the holes of the cinder block only to realize that the holes dry out pretty fast so unless you are watering them often not much will grow.

This was done about a month and a half ago now and the beds are currently doing quite well. I should mention that this is where we have the things that don’t need as much attention – the potatoes, corn, brussels sprouts, drying beans, garlic/onions, etc. The kitchen garden is closer to the house and ready to undergo a big expansion! As we harvest crops from the beds we will be adding more dirt to them now that we have frames to keep the dirt in place! Oh yeah, another 5 yards of compost mix was ordered. The investment this year was not small, but we shouldn’t have to do too much more in the coming years – now we are reaping the return!

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Moving on up…

There are a few things that your memory downplays about raising chicks from day old. First, the fine dust that covers, literally, everything. Where does it all come from? Second, no matter how clean you try to keep their pen, the smell is not, shall we say, rosy. Our girls are about 8 weeks old at this point and needed more space and we really needed our shed back; it was time to be introduced to the big girls.

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Cici, Greta, and Camille protesting the addition of new pullets by hanging out as far from the coop as they can.

We partitioned the coop to give the pullets a safe place to be while the big girls get used to them. Then we fenced off a decent sized run within the chicken yard so they have a safe place to explore the world and the big chickens can’t pick on them. In case you weren’t aware, chickens (well, most birds really) can be really mean. If we just threw new pullets in the coop and walked away, we may very well find dead chickens later on. The chicken hierarchy is very well established and hard won. They do not take kindly to usurpers invading their territory.

So here we are. We put each pullet in their new coop, taking care to clip each one’s wing – only one side – so that they will stay on their side of the partition; good fences make good neighbors, after all. The top hen, Cici, has made it quite clear to all involved (loudly I might add) that she is less than happy with the situation but I’m confident that in a weeks time she will accept the newcomers with grace and dignity (actually, chickens are neither graceful nor are they dignified).

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The girls getting used to their new space

The girls seem to be pretty happy with their new setup and have been exploring their yard with excitement. Hopefully, in a weeks time, we will have a happy, integrated flock and the partitions can come down!

The Ides of March…

Okay, I suppose the Ides of March was actually yesterday but it is what it is… IMG_3898

We have had a string of nothing but dark, wet days. It’s been torture as I’ve been dying to get out into the garden. I took a few days off this week to start the fence around the lasagna beds but the weather was so disagreeable that we opted to do some other things instead. In chick news, we decided that it was as good a time as any to move them out to the shed. Even in the empty spare room they created a huge amount of dust, and even cleaning out the pine shavings every few days there was still always a slight smell in there; it was time to get them out of the house. Honestly, they are all fully feathered, we were waiting for the Silkies to catch up to the big girls and they pretty much have. We won’t be putting them out with the existing flock for a few more weeks; they are still so much smaller and, well, chickens are mean! The Ecoglow brooder heater is doing a good job of giving them a bit of supplemental heat. I put it inside a storage tote turned on its side and it does create a nice warm nook for them. It really is far too small for more than 3 to fit under at this point but at 6 weeks old they really don’t need much (we are in the 40s at night and 50s during the day).

IMG_3896Because this will be our first Spring and Summer on the farm, we are having some worries about where the best place to plant will truly be; light, wind, accessibility, etc. For the time being, we have decided that much of the planting this year will be in containers so we can move them if necessary. We will be putting the plants that need to be checked/harvested daily (tomatoes, peppers, berries) closer to the house while the crops that are pretty low maintenance (corn, potatoes, squash, etc) will go into the lasagna beds at the bottom of the hill. It’s an experiment, we’ll see how it goes. Honestly, I haven’t had a huge amount of success with containers in the past so it will take some dedication on my part to ensure they thrive. I did a faux permaculture technique in the containers adding branches, grass clippings and leaves to the bottom of the containers before adding the dirt so hopefully this will help feed their needs once all that starts breaking down.

IMG_3900The starts are getting big and most seem pretty sturdy and healthy. I had my heart set on getting a fair amount out by the end of April so I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for the weather. We’ve found that with the heavy wind out here, things just get battered. We added a cheap greenhouse 2 weeks ago that is feeling the affects of the wind, for sure; but it will be so nice to have it when the starts are ready to go outside. I hope the late Winter has been lovely for you all! Happy garden planning!

 

Chick Update and life in February

IMG_3815The weather has been teasing us with a few warm(ish) and sunny days – all of which seem to be weekdays – and the trees are starting to bud. I even came home to surprise daffodils (well, I knew they were coming but as this is our first spring on the homestead I wasn’t aware of their presence until they started popping up from the ground a few weeks ago – this week they bloomed) which made me very happy!

The chicks have been growing insanely fast, last weekend (at 2 weeks old) they had pretty much outgrown their brooder so I moved them to their next phase which is where they’ll stay until it’s warm enough to move them to the shed. It is an XL dog crate which I wrapped in chicken wire to keep them from trying to squeeze through the bars. I’m not sure they could have (they definitely can’t now) but it wasn’t worth the risk; good fences make good neighbors when it comes to our dog and chickens. They are thriving and eating and drinking a ton! They are, of course, still leery of me but if I sit on the floor in front of the open door they will come right into my open hands. Their curiosity out weighs there fear, i suppose.

The black ones (3 Australorps and a black Silkie) are very hard to photograph well; the Buff Orpingtons also just seem a little more friendly and curious. Their feathers come in a little more everyday – we can’t put them outside until they are fully feathered, so we still have several more weeks before that day. They should have enough room in these accommodations – let’s hope!

Seeds were started and some things have actually gone into the garden already. I started snap and snow peas in gutters (I’ll post about that separately) so the first batch have already been transplanted and are doing well. Since we didn’t move in until nearly November and the garden was just a plan on paper at that time, the garlic just went in about a month ago, they won’t be as large as we are used to (since we didn’t get them in in October) but they will still be yummy, I’m sure! Tomatoes and peppers were started on heat mats under lights and are just starting to break through the dirt, they will stay inside until about May 1st, depending on weather.  IMG_3812

The days have been noticeably longer and that has really helped our ability to get things done. Pretty much since we’ve been here the only daylight I saw on the farm was on weekends. So happy to have about an hour or two in the evenings to enjoy this beautiful place. I am feeling so lucky to be here and so excited about the months to come.

 

Baby Chicks!

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Fuzzy picture, fuzzy subject

I mean, seriously, is there anything cuter than baby farm animals? So the three ladies of leisure in the chicken yard seemed to get the memo that it was time to start laying some eggs again, maybe they heard us talking about bringing in chicks and got a little worried. For whatever reason, all three of them started laying again in the last 2 weeks – which is amazing! Even the super expensive, pastured raised eggs at the market just couldn’t come close to the incredible, rich, orange yolked eggs that my girls had been laying pretty regularly up until October of last year. In case you didn’t know, chickens don’t lay much during the winter; it has to do with the amount of daylight they get. We made the decision early on not to supplement their light in the winter (a common trick to keep them laying year round) and to instead allow nature’s schedule to dictate their laying habits. This has, however, been the first winter where NO eggs happened. Well, I’m happy to say we made it through, even though we had to purchase eggs elsewhere for a few months.

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Farm dog Jak in the background hoping I will drop an egg!

The egg-citing (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) part is that we went ahead and got a new batch of baby chicks last weekend so that we can ensure our egg supply will continue for the years to come. We have found (in our limited experience of chicken keeping the last 4 years) that the hens we had that were raised from day olds are far more friendly and trusting than those we purchased as “teenagers” – we love watching their antics and it’s so much more enjoyable when they don’t run away from you when you come close! So, chicks. I put together a chick brooder from a 106 gallon storage tote (there are loads of tutorials all over the web about how to do this) and worried a great deal about using a heat lamp (although this is what we used last time we raised chicks, it’s really quite scary to have one of those in your house!) so I bit the bullet and purchased a Brinsea Ecoglow 20, knowing that it will likely pay for itself eventually (it uses a fraction of the electricity that a heat lamp does). The Ecoglow mimics the warmth of the mama hen by giving the chicks a nice warm “mama” to cuddle up under and keeps them safe (and the house) by only giving off the warmth needed to maintain their heat needs. Honestly, you can touch the heat source, it’s very warm but certainly not hot enough to burn or ignite the wood shavings. The chicks have LOVED it! Another pleasant side effect I’ve read from other’s experiences is that the chicks get very used to the rhythms of natural daylight so they sleep under the Ecoglow all night and are active in the brooder the majority of the day. I have found this to be true, as well.

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8 baby chicks under the Ecoglow.

So, anyway, back to the chicks! We came home with them on Saturday of last weekend – I believe they were 2 days old at that point. Here were are, 8 days later, and I swear they have doubled in size! We’ll be moving them out of the brooder probably next weekend to our secondary set up which is basically an extra large dog kennel that we have reinforced with hardwire cloth (since they would be able to fit in between the bars). But really, I’m sure all you care about is seeing how adorable they are so…. here you go!!!

They are just so darn cute! But loud and they make a huge mess. But it will all be worth it later 🙂

 

Getting the garden started

I have been making use of any non-rainy hour over the weekends this month putting in new garden beds. We had wooden raised  beds at the old house and after a few years they were getting to a point where the wood was going to need replacing. We would like to avoid that here; everything we are doing we are trying to think about the future (ie, old age!). We needed to get beds in quickly as I’ll need to start planting things like potatoes, snap and snow peas, kale, cabbage, etc pretty soon. I’ll be starting those all inside under grow lights this week.

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future garden area in front and hay field (high tunnels are on neighboring property)

I did quite a bit of research about the best way to tackle the beds – should we just till up the earth and call it a day? Should we use the “Lasagna” bed, or “no till”, that seems to be pretty popular? I’m drawn to the lasagna bed method as it will require less watering and weeding – however we moved in at the end of October so we had no mulch, compost, grass clippings, etc with which to get started. I decided to do a variation on the lasagna method that I’m hoping will give me the same long term benefits.

I started out by mowing the grass short in the area where the beds were going in; then I measured out 4×8 foot beds and marked them out with stakes. From there I put down cardboard, and lots of it, to act as a weed barrier. Ideally, you want to soak the cardboard to make it stay in place, but our weather has been so wet I figured it would be soaked in a matter of hours anyway! I decided to have 5 yards of high quality, organic, compost/top soil mixture delivered; yes, we have 10 acres of dirt, but when you get to be a certain age, it just makes more sense to make the investment and have the good stuff delivered and dropped within feet of where the beds are being constructed.

Each bed got several cart loads of dirt (being careful with the first one not to move the cardboard out of place) leveled out to create a raised bed of sorts, without anything framing them; I’d say they are about 6 inches deep after settling for a few weeks. I tried to make the sides as straight as possible and even left the edges raised a bit to try to minimize eroding.

We’ve put in 15 beds at this time; we’ll be putting in at least 5 more soon but this was enough to get started. I’m happy to report that there has been very little eroding, no weeds have poke through, and they look great! We may still add some barrier to the south facing side of each bed as the ground is slightly sloped so I don’t want to see the dirt wash away, but for now it’s been staying in place for several weeks. The next step will be adding mulch to the top to hold in the moisture and cut down on the weeds. We are only in the last day of January so I still have at least a month before I will be planting anything out there – but I can’t wait to see how this experiment pans out!

Our seed order has been placed – grow light brought out of storage – I’m ready for spring!

The birth of Monkey Hill Farm

Starting a blog is a very strange thing. You are putting words on a page and posting it to the Internet where everyone, or no one, will see it. I haven’t posted in a while because life has been uncharacteristically crazy. You see, we made good on our, well my, lifelong dream of living on a real farm. After searching for about a year and a half we found an almost perfect place – a little more than we wanted to spend, a little more land than we wanted, but a cute old farm house that needed work but wasn’t falling down and the perfect location (you’ve heard about the three “L”s of real estate, no?). We jumped on it. We’ve been here just about 2 months now and have been focusing on the house while we are experiencing the wettest month on record (and when you live just outside of Portland this is no small amount of rain – like, every single day rain) so plans for the land are all but halted. Mr. Green, the stoic outdoorsman that he is, has been going out everyday and battling groundhogs, rabbits, and blackberries. I have been focused on a kitchen face-lift, cleaning, and painting. This will be our first Christmas of many on our new farm and I’m definitely feeling the desire to send words out into the world via the World Wide Web where everyone, or no one, can see. So, dear reader, if you are out there – thank you for reading. If you have an interest in gardening, livestock, real food cooking, and renovating an old farmhouse – stay tuned. There will be loads to come – and hopefully some baby goats in spring!

 

Happy Holidays to you and yours!

 

Some pictures of Monkey Hill Farm

Goodbye, Pippa.

The Pipster

The Pipster

We lost a chicken today. To be perfectly honest, she wasn’t my favorite but she was a good girl. She was a solid layer until recently when chicken menopause struck and she became a lady of leisure.  I have already become comfortable with the fact that I could not cull these first birds; the ones that I raised from day old chicks (well, truthfully, Pippa came a few weeks later as a 3 month old and for that reason never quite warmed up to being held), the ones I named and watched grow. They would have a place in our little urban farm until they went peacefully (hopefully); this is dumb in a town where I am only permitted to have 5 chickens at a time, but truthfully, it is part of the commitment I made to these girls. Someday, when we have enough land to actually have a large number of chickens, I will not name them. Hopefully, when the time comes, I will be gritty enough to cull the herd as necessary. But that day is not today.

Today, Pippa died peacefully. My husband buried her in the backyard with the others that have gone before her. We are down to three chickens for the time being and I think it will stay that way for a bit. It’s always sad to lose an animal; and you will always wonder if there was something you could have done.

There is only one left from those original day old birds; the first girls. The ones that made us feel like real farmers. She is my favorite and still comes running towards me whenever she sees me coming. Believe it or not she still lays almost everyday (well, in the Summer at least). The chickens crack me up with their antics, and anyone who has ever had chickens knows they are better than TV. So, right now, I think I’m going to go hug a chicken.

Perfect hard eggs

Anyone with chickens knows that it’s feast or famine (literally!) when it comes to eggs. The egg laying frequency seems to be tied to day length; meaning right now when it is light before I wake up at 5:15 and it’s still light when I go to bed at 9:30 – we have eggs coming out of our ears. A great way to use up some of the extras is to have plenty of hard cooked eggs on hand for an easy snack or a yummy egg salad sandwich. Thank you, girls!

Fresh eggs tend not to peel well once hard cooked, however at this point I defintely have a dozen or so that have been in the fridge for a few weeks. Pick your older eggs to hard cook and you’ll have no problem peeling them.

I tend to like mine still a bit creamy in the center – solid but without the yucky green tinge to them! The perfect way to achieve the perfect cooked egg is to bring your water to a hard boil, carefully put your eggs in the water (I use a slotted spoon to lower the eggs into the water), cover the pot and boil for about a minute or so. Then turn off the heat and let the eggs sit in the water (covered) for approximately 12 minutes (more if you want the centers harder). Dump the water and fill the pot with cold to let them cool down.

Once cool you can peel your eggs and enjoy a healthy snack. I mean seriously, look at those gorgeous orange yolks! My girls are earning their keep this summer!

Garlic Harvest

We’ve had an unseasonably hot and dry spring here in the PNW; something we are not accustomed to. The garden is like a full time job now, to be started when I get home from my other full time job! Each year the garden has been the subject of a different experiment; and each year I learn from what went well or what I would do differently and squirrel it away in my garden notebook SWEARING that next summer’s garden will be perfect! Well, I’m still waiting for that perfect garden BUT this year we decided to focus on things that grow well with little maintenance, produce a large amount of food per square foot, and stored or preserved well. To that end we have loads of berries, grapes, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, sunflowers, onions, and garlic (among many other things).

Although it’s earlier than normal, the garlic was showing signs of needing to come out. Sadly, there is a fairly small window of opportunity to harvest your garlic if you want a large, tight bulb that will store well.

I only grow hard neck varieties because only hard necks will produce a scape – and I LOVE scapes! – but sadly, they don’t store quite as long. However, I do find that if I store them in a mesh bag in the crisper drawer of the fridge after curing for a few weeks in my garden shed that they do stay fresh for about 5+ months. Once the heads look like they are starting to dry out I peel them and keep them in a jar of vinegar in my fridge – they will stay like this for the next 6 months or so until my next harvest! I’m also planning on dehydrating some for home grown garlic powder this year. I did, after all, plant about 85 heads of garlic (maybe i was a little overzealous).Garlic Head d Before Curing

The garlic will tell you when it’s time; each leaf on your garlic plant is a layer of wrapping around your cloves. These wrappers will protect your hard work and allow you to store the cloves longer. Once the leaves start to die back (from the bottom up) you’ll want to keep a close eye. I find that once the bottom 3-4 leaves are dead it’s a good time to check. Loosen the soil with your fingers and see how big the bulb is. If you are happy with the size and the head looks nice and tight (no cracks or separating) then stop watering your patch for at least a week to dry it out – you want your heads to be nice and dry before curing and the soil will be looser, allowing for easier head removal. I like to dig up my heads with a gardening spade and my dirty hands. Loosen the dirt around the head and get your spade under the base of the head. Loosen the head with your hand while prying the head upwards with the spade  you’ll feel the roots come loose and the head pop free (this all sounds very graphic, doesn’t it? Eww!).

Let the curing begin!Once all your heads are up, move them to a dry place with good ventilation for 3ish weeks to cure (don’t bother cleaning the dirt off, you don’t want to risk damaging the protective wrapping) – I put mine in a garden shed resting on top of a length of galvanized mesh fencing so there is plenty of room for air to move around the heads. Once they are nice and dry you can brush off the loose dirt (gently, you want to keep the wrappers in tact) and cut off the stalks and put in a mesh bag – ideally these would be stored in a root cellar. I don’t have one but have found that if I keep them in my refrigerator crisper drawer they keep pretty well and last a good, long time.

Oh, and don’t forget to pick the largest heads for replanting next year! I pick the 8 largest heads and keep them separately in my pantry – these will go in the ground in October for next years harvest.

One thing I did do differently this year was that I cut the scapes earlier than I had in years passed. The last few years I waited until  scapes made a complete circle before cutting, this year I cut them while they were a bit small and just curled downward. The idea behind this is that removing the scape tells the plant to send all of it’s energy into growing large heads instead of worrying about reproducing. I do think my heads were larger this year (although, truthfully, not by much) but my scape harvest was smaller. I suppose I will have to consider which is more important to me next summer.

Off to make a yummy dinner of crusty, rustic bread and roasted garlic. The smell of roasted garlic is killing me!