Glorious Eggs

This weekend, I got to do a big sigh of relief.  Building the brooder, sweeping up feathers, building a coop, chasing chickens out of my garden for 4 months…it’s all been worth it.  Know why? Because this weekend, we found THIS!

Yayy!!

Yayy!!

We’ve gone through approximately 200 lbs of feed, 3 rolls of chicken wire, dozens of lost tomatoes, and countless fights between the hens and the dog, but it was all worth it!  We’re now at about half a dozen, although we keep eating them, so I can’t prove that! It looks like just one hen is laying so far (the one we thought looked like a rooster!), but hopefully the other 5 aren’t far behind.  Look out friends! We’re about to have eggs!

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A Day of Canning

Well, this post is only a week late, but I’m writing it! What can I say? It’s been a busy and distracting week.

Rain rain, go ahead and stay!

Rain rain, go ahead and stay!

Last Sunday, we woke up to a nice, rainy morning.  Now, there will come a time later in the year where I do tend to complain about rain quite a bit.  But August in Southeast Texas is not one of those times.  We decided to put the rainy day to use, and got busy in the kitchen!

Pretty Cans

Pretty Cans

We knew when we planted our garden this year that we intended to can as much as possible.  We’d hoped for more tomatoes, so that we could can those, too, but those darn stink bugs (actually leaf footed beetles, but po-tay-toe po-ta-toe) so we ended up with just enough for a jar or two of salsa.  Those are still in the freezer until I decide to splurge at the grocery store for the rest of the ingredients.  So, our canning was put on hold a little this year, but now our okra are coming in like crazy, and my grandmother’s friend brought us this:

Bag of Figs

Bag of Figs

Not only could we not even think of eating all of those figs, but they were also already frozen.  sigh.  The only option left was to make fig preserves, which are the best thing ever on a buttered muffin. If you haven’t tried them, go ahead.  It’s almost impossible to be disappointed.

We figured since we were at it, we may as well harvest our jalepeno plants as well, and make some jalepeno jelly.  Some will go out as Christmas gifts (oops, spoiler for family and friends), some will be brought to social gatherings, and others will be enjoyed at midnight with a cube of cream cheese and a sleeve of crackers while I watch re-runs of Scrubs.  Don’t judge.

Canning fig preserves

Canning fig preserves

So, we got to work.  8 hours, 3 big messes, 5 dirty pots, and 43 jars later, we were done.  And tired.  But our first day of canning for the season was a big success, and a lot of fun. We ended up with about 24 1-use sized jars of jalepeno jelly, 8 cans of okra, and 10 cans of figs.  Yes, I realize that adds up to 42 and not 43 jars, but believe it or not, one jar actually exploded in the canner!  That was definitely a first for us, but apparently it can happen if you’re re-using a jar, or the jar is too cold when you put it in the hot water.

All in all, it was a fun and productive day.  We’ll have to do it again really soon, too, since we’ve already got enough okra to go through it again! This time it will be on a much smaller scale.

Do you can produce from your garden? What are some of your favorite recipes? For those of you new to canning, stay tuned for a canning 1o1 post real soon!

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DIY Garden Fence

This week, Cage Free Dad and I decided to get started on a garden fence.  We’ve known for awhile that we wanted to fence off the garden, but our struggle with birds and squirrels made us get started sooner than expected.  We don’t have a huge budget for these projects, having just moved in and having way too many projects to finish at once, so I wracked my brain for a simple, free idea.

Ta-da!

Ta-da!

We constructed this fence from old wood pallets and recycled fence wood.  We didn’t spend a single penny on supplies, which is just great! I love the uneven, messy look.  Eventually, we’ll paint it, but it’s just not in the budget right now.

We designed the fence in a way that we’ll be able to expand it as our garden grows, without too much work.  Right now we just wanted something around our immediate garden so that we could drape the bird net right on the inside of it and fully protect the garden from those pesky birds.  An added bonus, our chickens can now roam the yard again!  They had a great time enjoying the yard after CFD mowed.  Hopefully, letting them out again will help with the bug problem we’ve been having.

I’m pretty proud of our little freebie project.  It sure did take a lot of labor time (we actually started 2 weeks ago pulling apart pallets and fences), but I think it’s worth it! We should have enough wood right now to fence our entire future plot, too.

The process was pretty simple, but I’ll break it down here.  First, we broke apart pallets.  Those were a PITA, though, so after a few, CFD moved on to fence wood, which was much easier.  He cut those boards in half, because we didn’t want a tall fence.  Then, I laid out all the pieces on the grass, staggering cross beams all the way across.  We didn’t measure a certain distance for the boards, just eyeballed it, since we weren’t looking for a perfect looking fence.

Fence posts that borders the garden previously, shown in photo.

Fence posts that borders the garden previously, shown in photo.

Once all of the cross beams were screwed in, we lifted the fence and screwed them to the round fence posts that were already bordering our garden for extra support.  (see photo above)

Once that was done, we secured the corners by making wooden L’s to screw in.  Once that was done, the fence was complete! We still need to build a gate, but I’m hoping that such a small opening won’t be noticeable to the chickens and other critters in our yard.

Side view

Side view

Don’t you just love projects that turn out to be free? I know I do!

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Garden Surprise

Have you ever been surprised by the plants in your garden? What I mean is, we usually go to the nursery and pick out plants based on a plan, so we know exactly what will grow, where.  Well, this year was our first year trying out a local nursery, instead of buying starts at a big box store.  I loved the prices (.99 a start!) and service, but we have now ended up with two garden surprises!

The first one was simply the wrong kind of pepper- it was labeled jalepeno but we are pretty sure it is a banana pepper.  It’s a great producer, though, so no big deal.  However, we’ve now got a big (and I mean big) surprise in our garden.

That's not a cucumber!

That’s not a cucumber!

Remember how I said that right after we planted our garden, we suffered a really late frost and lost a few plants? We had to replace 2 of our cucumber starts.  They seemed kind of puny for the longest time, and I didn’t have much faith in them.  Suddenly, the vines branched out so fast I didn’t even have time to train them. They went everywhere.  Optimistic that this meant we would get a lot of cucumbers, I didn’t mind.  What we thought were cucumbers were popping up everywhere and growing at an exponential rate.  I finally asked in a gardening group, “what kind of cucumber is this?”  Obviously, I was told it’s not a cucumber at all (in my defense the photo was of a much smaller one, but still really big for a cucumber). I’d never seen them get this big, or have quite this pattern on them.  I feel kind of silly, now, but seeing the above photo, this obviously isn’t a cucumber.

I thought it was a cucumber!

I thought it was a cucumber!

We’ve now got 3 good sized watermelons growing in our garden.  I feel kind of silly that I picked a few when they were smaller, but hey! When you’re told it’s a cucumber, you assume it’s a cucumber, right?  I’m a little disappointed that we won’t be getting any pickles this year, but hopefully soon we’ll be enjoying some fresh watermelon straight from the garden! Now, the trick is to know when they’re ready! I honestly have no idea, since I’ve never grown a melon.

Has this happened to anyone else before??

 

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How to Compost for Your Garden

Let’s face it.  Backyard gardens are in style again.  Whether you live in a rural area with lots of space for plants, a small suburban neighborhood  with a corner of your yard reserved for veggies, or an urban apartment with a few plants in pots.  Everyone is doing it these days.  There are plenty of benefits to growing your own veggies, from knowing there are no pesticides to the freshest tasting produce you’ll ever have.  But, did you know that there is something you can do to make your gardening experience even better? It’s free, too, and takes virtually no effort on your part.  All you’ll need is a bucket in your kitchen and a small corner of your backyard, and you’ve got all of the essentials for making a compost pile.

Compost Pile

Compost Pile

Why You Should Compost

Composting is the single best thing you can do for your garden.  It adds vital nutrients to your soil which helps your plants grow bigger, healthier, and more fruitful.  Sure, you can buy compost, too.  But there are so many reasons to make your own, including:

  1. It’s free
  2. It’s easy
  3. It has a wider variety of ingredients
  4. You know what’s in it

By purchasing compost from a big manufacturer, not only are you spending money on something you could get for free, but you are also usually getting a more limited variety of nutrients, since commercial products are usually from big industries.  So you might get wood compost, or chicken compost, or straw compost, etc.  These are all great, and certainly better than just using fertilizer, but by doing it yourself, you can get much more balanced nutrients for your garden.

So, now you’re probably wondering how to compost, right? I know I’ve told you it’s free, and that it’s easy, but you probably don’t believe me.  Yet.  Trust me, I know.  It seems so overwhelming at first, but once you get started it’s the easiest thing you can do for your garden!

Getting Your Compost Pile Started

To get started with a compost pile, all you need are a small bucket or bowl, veggie scraps, dried yard or plant material, and a corner of your back yard.

There are two basic ways to make compost.  You can do an open-air compost pile, or compost in an enclosed drum or barrel.  I only have experience with open-air composting (I’m too cheap to buy a compost barrel), so that’s what I’ll be talking about here.

Personally, my compost pile is just a big pile in the corner of my yard (like the photo above), but you can also build a small wood box about the same size as a raised garden bed.  Don’t build it too high, though.

Once you have your spot picked out, it’s time to start composting! This is where the bucket and kitchen scraps come in.  I keep a small bucket in my kitchen, and throughout the day, I empty all of my fruit and veggie scraps into it. This means that every time I peel a carrot, I put the peels in the bucket.  When I core an apple, into the bucket it goes.  You get the idea!  Some things you can compost from your kitchen include:

  1. used coffee grounds (and filter)
  2. veggie peels and scraps
  3. fruit scraps
  4. old bread and pasta
  5. tea bags
  6. crushed eggshells

Things you don’t want to include in your compost bucket include meat and dairy products, which will rot and smell in your compost pile.

At the end of each day, Pistache runs our bucket of kitchen scraps out to the compost pile and dumps it. See? I told you.  No effort! Instead of dumping your kitchen waste into a trash can, you dump it into a bucket.  And now it’s useful!

So, that’s the first part of composting.  However, if you only add food scraps (otherwise known as “green matter”) to your compost, it will begin to rot instead of slowly decompose.  It will also smell and attract rodents, which can be a big problem. Then you’ll get frustrated and give up, and we don’t want that.  So, how do you avoid this? By adding brown matter to your compost pile as well.  This is the part that many people forget about, or feel that they don’t have anything to add to the pile.  However, brown matter is almost easier to come by than green matter, believe it or not.  Some things that count as brown matter include:

  1. Dried yard clippings- Every time you mow your lawn, let those clippings dry out for a day or two and then shovel them into your pile.
  2. Leaves that fall off of trees- During the fall, rake up all of your leaves and add them to your compost pile.  Or, as your neighbors for theirs!
  3. Shredded paper products- We all have a constant influx of paper products coming into our homes.  Simply throw those into a shredder and add them to the compost pile.
  4. Straw or pine shavings from your chicken coop- When you clean the coop, add that to your pile as well! This will add a little green matter as well, in the form of chicken poop, which is amazing for a garden.

You want to aim for about 1 part green matter (food stuffs) to 4 parts brown.  At the very least, aim for a 1:1 ratio to ensure that the pile doesn’t begin to rot and smell.

When is Your Compost Ready?

Your compost pile is finished when it looks like rich, brown soil.  There should be no noticeable materials left in the soil when it’s ready. If there are any kitchen scraps visible in your pile, stir them in and wait for them to decompose.  Remember, every time that you add new matter to your compost pile, you’re starting over at day one.  It might be a good idea to keep two piles.  Feed one the new matter, and let the other one “cook.” This way, you can get two compost harvests in a year.  Once it’s done, you can till it into your garden bed or layer it on like mulch.  Wait a few weeks before planting in it, to make sure it’s fully ready, and you’ll have amazing garden soil for your new plants!

This is pretty much everything you need to know to start your own compost pile.  If you start today, you’ll have the makings for perfect garden soil for next year’s garden!

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How to Fertilize an Organic Garden

I’ve put off a post about organic garden fertilizing for awhile, because I sometimes wonder “who am I to offer gardening advice?”  After all, I’ve made it very clear that I am also learning as I go. In fact, if you’ve been following my blog since the very beginning, you’ll know that my garden last year was abysmal.  It was my first attempt at organic gardening, and it was a huge learning experience for us.  However, I’ve had some questions about how I fertilize to help my plants thrive without resorting to commercial fertilizers.  I thought I’d go ahead and share my tips now, so hopefully I can encourage other gardeners to convert! After all, if you see something that works, it might help you make the switch to organic.  All of these tips are based on trial and error, and a lot of research on organic websites (see bottom of post for links).

My favorite fertilizers for my organic garden include:

  • homemade compost (come back next week for a post on composting)
  • Epsom salts
  • used coffee grounds & banana peels
  • egg shells
  • natural garden mulch.

I feel that the combination of these in my garden has made a much bigger and healthier garden this year.  Now, I’ll break down the how and why of each item I use.

June 2013 Cage Free Mom Garden

June 2013 Cage Free Mom Garden

First, and foremost, compost is the easiest and most essential addition you can make to your organic garden.  I let mine mature all year, and then add it to my garden bed and till it in once before planting.  It can make a world of difference! Not only does it add essential nutrients to your soil, it can also improve the drainage.  This means that if you have heavy clay soil like I did, you can make it better year after year by simply tilling in your compost each year.  Eventually, you won’t even be able to tell it was ever clay.  It will just be dark, rich, well drained soil.  If you aren’t adding compost to your garden yet, do it!

Compost Pile

Compost Pile

Epsom salt is another favorite in my garden, but this one seems to be more plant specific.  Plants that really seem to benefit the most from the use of epsom salt are tomatoes and peppers, although I’ve also been advised to add it to my cucumbers as well.  Epsom salt adds sulfur and magnesium to your soil, which are both vital nutrients to these plants.  In addition, if it is added to your soil dry, it can help deter slugs, which are a really common garden pest.

To use epsom salt in your garden, there are a few ways you can do it.  A great way to get your plants off to a healthy start is to add about a tablespoon to the hole before you plant your pepper or tomato plant.  This gives your plants a great source of nutrients right at the beginning so they have the best start possible.  In addition to using this during your first planting, you can also add it occasionally during the growing season.  The best way to do this is to either apply it dry around the base of your plant, or mix 2 TBS of epsom salt into a gallon of water and use that to water your plants.  This is my personal favorite method, although I’ve added it dry on a few occasions when I was in a hurry.

My natural fertilizers ready to work.

My natural fertilizers ready to work.

Coffee grounds and banana peels are two other great natural sources of nutrients for your veggie plants.  Coffee grounds are a great source of nitrogen and banana peels are used to add potassium to the soil.  For both of these fertilizers, you can either add them to your compost bin, or put them directly in your bed.  I do a bit of both.  When I want to put the coffee grounds in my garden, I generally just sprinkle the used grounds around the base of the plant.  Not only does this fertilize the plant, but it also burns slugs, keeping them off of my valuable produce.  For banana peels, I generally take whatever peels we’ve produced in the last few days and puree them in a blender with a bit of water, then pour it around my plants.  You can add them whole, or broken into bits, but I feel that pureeing them first allows the break down of nutrients to occur much faster, giving you quicker nutrients for the plants.

Egg shells are another great addition to your organic garden.  They provide calcium, and can also help deter slugs (are you noticing a pattern here?).  When planting my garden at the beginning of the season, I added a handful of blended egg shells to the holes during planting.  Then, throughout the growing season, I simply rinse my egg shells after breakfast and add them to a bag.  Every few weeks I toss them into a blender and then pour them directly around my plants to give them an extra dose of nutrients to keep them healthy.

Straw mulching the garden

Straw mulching the garden

Lastly, if done correctly, your garden mulch can also be a great source of fertilization for your plants and soil!  Many gardeners don’t consider this, since mulch is usually used to keep the soil moist and protect the plant roots from heat, but if you opt for a natural mulch rather than a bag of the rubbery mulch offered in stores, your plants will thank you.  Natural mulch includes hay, straw, dried yard clippings, shredded tree leaves, and tree branches sent through a chipper.  You will have to reapply your mulch more often this way, but that is because it breaks down so fast and goes right into the soil.  As an added bonus, at the end of the season you can just till in whatever is left and leave it for next year!

After careful research all winter long, I devised this system of fertilizing my veggie garden.  I’ve been using these natural fertilizers all season, and I’ve never had a garden look so good.  I feel that a combination of these natural fertilizers gives my plants everything they need to remain healthy all season long.  An added bonus is that you probably won’t have to spend much extra money by doing it this way.  If you do your own composting, that is a free soil amendment.  Bananas and coffee are already on my grocery list, and we eat eggs most mornings for breakfast.  This system simply uses our waste to help produce more veggies! The only things we had to buy to help fertilize our garden were straw and epsom salt, both of which have provided other uses as well.

My favorite gardening websites are MotherEarthNews.com , Organicgardening.com, & organicgardening.about.com

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The Chickens are No Longer Chicks

I swear, now that the chicks I mean chickens, have left the brooder in the house, they are changing at a crazy fast rate.  Who knew chickens grew so fast?! (Okay, well, I guess I did, but still…)

We’ve officially started to let them free range fairly often.  I mean, we kind of had to. Once they had a taste for it, they quickly learned how to fly over the fence for their run and wander the yard on their own anyway.  I swear, it’s like keeping a toddler in their new bed.  It just won’t happen.

Free Range Chicks

Free Range Chicks

Well, hey.  The only reason we really kept them in the run is to keep them away from Scout, our overly playful pup that seems to think they are toys.  But you know what? It turns out these chicks can really handle their own.  Scout is now afraid of getting pecked on the nose again, and all it takes is a cock-eyed look from one of the chicks to send her running in the other direction.  Mission: Accomplished!

They’ve also really gotten to know us! It’s so funny.  Every time they see one of us, the whole flock comes running (and if you’ve ever seen a chicken run, you know what I mean by funny).  In fact, it was incredibly hard to get this picture of them free ranging, because they kept running at me while I was trying to get in the best angle to get a picture!

In addition to running at us every time they see us, they really actually like to be held (well, most of them do, we’ve got 2 shy ones).  And Pistache loves holding them, too.  So it’s a win-win for everyone.

Friendly chicks.

Friendly chicks.

Cage Free Dad enjoys holding them, too.  For some reason, they really like to roost on his arm and listen to him talk.  Or…maybe they just think he’s crazy for talking to a chicken? I sure do!

 

Chicken Talk

Chicken Talk

They also really love roosting on his shoulder, although I don’t think he’s quite as comfortable with that!

Did it poop on me?

Did it poop on me?

The answer, of course, is no it didn’t poop on him.  I wouldn’t have been mean enough to snap a picture of that. But it was funny to see him get so nervous about it!

As far as growth updates, I’d say they are hitting puberty.  They go back and forth between peeping like chicks and clucking like chickens, which really reminds me of boys during that phase of life!

They’ve also finally started eating some table scraps.  These crazy birds really love cabbage! So funny.  I’ve tried a variety of things, and the only decent response has been to strawberry scraps and cabbage scraps.  They turn their noses up at everything else! Who knew chickens were picky?

All in all, our chickens are growing at an impressive rate.  I’m anxiously awaiting our first eggs, but I know it will be awhile before that starts up.  I’m hoping for August, though!

 

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