Saturday, February 28, 2015

Lawn-to-Pasture and Bush Willow Pruning/Planting

Spring is around the corner and there is a 1001 chores to get done around the homestead. I did a walk about yesterday morning to see the state of the homestead. I already knew I needed to get to the bush willows and get them pruned back before they came out of dormancy. On the walk-about I discovered come pruning work to do on a couple of the mulberry trees as well as the blackberry and rose bushes. I will also be taking some cuttings from the elderberry bushes to propagate new bushes.

I have been contemplating the transformation of the northeaster quarter of the homestead from lawn to pasture. The idea is to have cut-and-carry fresh grass/weeds for the rabbits and also some dried for winter hay. This morning I venture over to Vereens Turf Center in Longs, SC to get some grass and clover seed. After talking with the helpful ladies there, I settled on a pre-mix of Bahia, Burmuda, Rye, and a few other grasses and a side bag of crimson clover. Five pounds of each. I mixed those with rabbit manure and hand tossed it over the lawn area. I think I could have used more, I really wanted a heavier coverage. Next time I am at Tractor Supply I will pick up a bag of "deer plot" seed and toss it out there as well. Lord willing, it will produce a nice source of food for the rabbits.

Next, it was time to get on those willows or I would lose my chance. So, I took pruners to the 58 bush willows that I planted last year. It seems counter-intuitive to cut them back to stumps again but I'm told that this will stimulate strong growth this year. Last year, I had to leave them alone (no cutting forage for the rabbits) but I should be able to cut forage from the willow this year. I sure hope so because the idea is for the willow to provide a good protein source as well as a coccidiostat effect for the rabbits. From the prunings, I planted an additional 49 willows so that next year, I'll have 109 food producing willows. I have plenty more cuttings which are destined to be mailed off to other BYMR Groupies.

Tomorrow, I'll get to the mulberries, blackberries, and roses.

I'm reading a new book, Food Web: Concept which is the first of a series of books on creating food webs on your homestead to maximize food production with less inputs. It is an exceptional book and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get more for less -- more food and more goods to sell for less inputs/costs. The concept is one I've had as a framework for my homestead from the beginning but this book is fleshing out the ideas in ways that have me quite excited with renewed hope that it is really possible.

Now, before I forget: the Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener's Handbook for the week of February 23rd:

* plant potatoes.--Well, I have ordered potato starts but they have not come. Which considering the amount of rain we've had, I don't think I would be able to plant them now anyway. I am planning to try growing the potatoes in tire towers again. My first attempt a few years ago was a dismal failure but I want to give it one more try before giving up on the idea. Besides, I don't have enough prepared bed space this year for potatoes so doing the towers is my best option.
* propagate rosemary by layering -- if I had a rosemary bush, now would be the time to propagate it by layering (sticking a bottom branch into the soil and pinning it in place until it roots). But, this reminds me that it is also a good time to look for a rosemary bush at the garden centers and plant it.
* hardening off cabbage starts--I don't have seedlings (no space) but this is a reminder that I am still behind the 8-ball to get the raised beds up and ready for planting. If I can get them up soon, I could seed them with my brassicas and be ready with row covers for cold nights.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Weather Outside is Frightful

This has been quite a winter so far -- not as bad here as it has been in the Northeast for sure but very rainy. Last night we had winds in the 30-40mph range and it was COLD. In the next few days we are predicted to have a "wintry mix" of weather. The Almanac predicted "Red Flag" weather in the first week of February and so it seems they were right but it didn't stop there! They also "Red Flagged" the middle of March so winter isn't done and any early season planting I do needs to be done with an eye to being able to cover when necessary. But, even with such wintry weather, The gardening season is upon us! I'm feeling the pressure already--too much to do and too little time to do it in.

Per the "Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener's Handbook" I should have flats of seedlings going weeks ago. Well, I am just not able to do flats of seedlings currently. I need a greenhouse for that but that will be next year at the soonest. This year, we still either direct seed or we buy starts. Other than that, let's see how I'm doing on the weekly plan:

Week 8 before Average Date of Last Frost (February 2nd for my area):
  • remove half of the mulch from the garlic (and strawberry) bed if there is signs of growth. No strawberry bed this year but I do have a garlic and onion bed that I planted in the Fall. No signs of growth with the onions but the garlic had started growing in the Fall but has not grown much since. After this week's cold, I'll begin uncovering the garlic. 
Week 7 before Average Date of Last Frost (February 9th for my area):
  • Raised beds. As soon as I get the birds moved (soon, Lord, please!) I will build a couple of raised beds in the back yard. Having the annual vegetable garden closer to the back door will make it easier to maintain and harvest. The other areas of the yard will be for mostly perennials (except for some vining crops that will need trellising). 
  •  Pea & Spinach. I need to get spinach seeded in the next week or so. I won't have the raised beds built but I do have the tires I can set up for planting.
  • Carrots & beet. Time to be sowing these outdoors as well. I had not intended to plant annuals around the plum trees again but since the raised beds are not ready, I may need to use those beds for one more season.
  • Soil. Work the soil--work in amendments and/or cover crops. I am working to spread the tree shreds/mulch I received this winter. I am spreading it thick a la "Back to Eden" garden fashion. Once I have it spread, I want to top dress with rabbit manure and other amendments and then let it set for a season or two before planting into it. 
Week 6 before Average Date of Last Frost (February 16th for my area):
  • Onions. Sow seeds outdoors if soil is workable. I did sow some onion seeds last Fall. I have more that I did not sow. As soon as the weather is better, I need to get the rest of the onions planted.
  • Chard, kale, carrot, radish, beet, turnip, kohlrabi, parsnip. Sow outdoors in prepared garden soil. I recently discovered that I really like chard so I need to order seed. As soon as possible, I need to get these cool season vegetables sown outdoors in hopes of a good season. 
In addition to these pressing issues are pre-existing issues and new ones caused by the strong winds of the last week. I need to get the birds into their new housing and their new run fenced in so I can turn my attentions to the rabbitry. Moving the rabbits was --until this week-- more an issue of wanting more space to have more rabbits. The high winds have damaged the rabbit shed roof and pushed the urgency of getting the rabbitry up several notches.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Creating New Chicken Coop and Duck Houses

So, I've been aiming to get new housing for the chickens and the ducks. I was able to get 3 dog kennels off of Craiglist and the question was --  "How to put a roof on them?"

The answer to that question depended on whether I would have help or not. Just two weeks ago, I thought I had help in the form of a young man with time on his hands. He was going to build a "carport" style cover for the kennels that would allow for moving the kennels under the roof if desired. Nice. Cost: $300 including his labor. I planned to pay more like $350 as he was underpricing his labor.

But, he decided that hangin' with his friends was more his cup-of-tea and he backed out. Gave an excuse that I actually believed until his mother gave a different excuse to our friend who had made the connection between us and the young man. Ah, so they both were being dishonest. Shame on them.

So, I was left without assistance and no more patience for trying to find someone with the desire to work. I decided to do what I could do single-handed. So, I decided to go with cattle panels and highway advertising vinyls. The upside of this is that not only will I grow my self-confidence but I will get these three kennels covered AND the larger kennel that will be the new rabbitry done for about $400 including two extra panels for using as trellis in the garden. A very good bargain!

Cattle Panels (aka Feedlot Panels) are 16 feet long by 3.5 feet wide. They are commonly used to make hoophouses and field housing for goats and pigs. The challenge is in transporting them from the Tractor Supply Store in Whiteville to the house. I have one friend with a good sized trailer that I could call on to help--hopefully. I offered to pay him for his gas and time to assist me in the transport and he took me up on it. So, 15 panels made their way to the homestead last weekend.

Highway advertising vinyls are the used advertising signs you see on the highway billboards. They are made of thick vinyl and are...well...big! I have three that are 10'x32' that I got free from a local sign shop. Expect to pay for them, though. My source realized after they gave me these for free that there is a market for them and now they charge $25 each.

Yesterday was a warm, sunny Saturday and I could actually walk around without sinking in mud so it was time to get started. I was on my own. My goal was to get the three kennels destined to be a chicken coop and duck houses ready to be covered with the billboard vinyls.

The first kennel is 6'x9' and the the gate is on the 6 foot side making the only direction a cattle panel roof could run would be from 9' wall to 9'wall. That would be too sharp a curve for the cattle panels. Fortunately, I had an extra kennel wall section that came with the kennel. This would become the roof support for this kennel. I wanted a slant to the roof so I fetched an extra metal fence post I had and strapped it to one of the 9' top bars. Then, lifted the extra kennel panel up and strapped it down -- one side lifted by the extra fence post. Then it was time to start working with the cattle panels.

Cattle Panels on the Chicken Coop
Cattle panels are not heavy so much as unwieldy.  The first couple in the 8x12 kennel were pretty easy. The panels would run from 8' wall to 8'wall which is the ideal "bend" for these when doing hoophouses. I was thinking that there should be room to easily fit three panels with a bit of space between them. Either the kennel is not truly 12 feet long or the panels are wider than the 3.5' because I had to overlap panel two and three. Thus, the third one was more of a challenge because it required trying to get it up and over the top, under the second one, and into position to attach and it was a tight fit. I got it with a bit of effort and once done, I was winded and needed a rest.

Then, it was time to do the 10x10 kennel. Panel 4 (1st panel in the 10x10) was ridiculously hard. First, I approached it from the wrong side and trying to turn the panel 90degrees was annoyingly harder than it should have been. Perhaps I was just getting tired. I didn't give up and finally got it into position and strapped in place. The bow was a bit odd for reasons I don't know but that won't affect it's job as roof support. Another rest to catch my breath and then on to panel 5, the last one of the day.

About this time, my redneck neighbor strolls over being nosy. Never offers to help me. Just talks about how many eggs his hens are giving him daily while I am dragging the panel around -- to the correct side this time -- and then up and over the top of the kennel. Somewhere in that process he fades off and leaves and I continue with my task at hand. Strap it down--it has a more normal bow shape-- and I'm done.

Last night, we lost Gracie the Pekin duck I rescued a few months ago. She was out free ranging with the Muscovies. When they came back, she couldn't figure out how to get back in the gate with them. When I tried to direct her, she panicked and went into the woods. This morning, all that was left was white feathers. I am aiming to order some ducklings but this was a harsh reminder of why I am working to get the duck houses built. I will put up some yard fencing around their new area as well and then get a portable electric fence for when I want to let them free range. And, my new ducklings will be trained not to be afraid of me and to let me herd them. Poor Gracie was too traumatized by her previous owner to let me close and too dumb to follow the muscovies lead.