2017 Growing Season Awakens

Not much of a winter so far here in Vermont. A bit more snow than where we used to live in Chicago, who just had the first January and February with no measurable snow for the first time in a long time. But still a fairly mild winter. It’s been brutally cold the last few days though, so winter is not done yet.

Anyway, seed starting is well underway. Still trying to fine tune my basement seed starting setup, which in this case mainly means adding a few more lights. Otherwise I’m pretty happy with my current setup. Starting a few things a bit earlier than last year now that I have a better understanding of when and how the greenhouse plays into the mix. Basically thinking I can get even bigger and better starts than last year and potentially get stuff into the ground sooner.

This year we are going to experiment with going no-till for a bunch of reasons. After research and talking to some people who know more than me, I would just like to get away from using the tiller for anything except maybe establishing new plots. Tilling does a major destruction on soil structure and biology and basically stirs up a bunch of your nitrogen to the surface where you basically lose most of it. The other thing we’ve found is that we end up fighting weeds in the aisles by mid-summer, which is both a waste of time and takes energy away from the plants we want. Makes more sense to develop a deep mulch structure and use carbon (newspaper, cardboard) between the rows. Eventually you get a much richer, deeper soil structure with a lot of bio-diversity plus help from the mycorrhiza fungi network and the soil structure makes it much easier to pull the weeds that do germinate. That’s the theory anyway and we’re going to experiment with it. What we are doing now is too much work and we aren’t building soil fertility as fast as we want, so time to shake things up.

In other news, our lazy chickens (and one of the ducks) just FINALLY started laying again after taking a break since mid-December. And not all of them have started yet. That’s a lot of freeloading. Fine with them having a month or so break, but this has been too long. That being said, our youngest birds are about 2 years old, so not that surprising that egg production is slowing. We’re going to add some new hens to the mix this spring.

Before long it will be time to start putting cold hardy seeds in the ground, like lettuce, carrots, brassicas and peas. And maybe even some potatoes if we can get into the ground. The long range forecast isn’t showing a lot of frost after the end of March, so it will be interesting to see if we can get an earlier start this year. In Vermont every day helps.

Spring 2016 Bulbs

Planting bulbs is like a lot of gardening; an exercise in hope, planning and patience. Last fall we added a bunch more tulip, daffodil and some other bulbs to the front beds along our walkway. Despite the chickens deciding that is a prime digging area and eating some of the leaves, we are now at just about peak bloom and it’s pretty cool.

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Before and After: From Back Deck

I thought it would be fun to start a short little series of before and after shots of various parts of our property. Unfortunately, I don’t have good before shots for everything. But I have some cool ones to compare.

Here is the first one, a shot from our back deck looking back over the northwest corner of our property. Not the most interesting one, but some cool things happening never the less.

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The before shot does have a cool rainbow going for it.

Here is the after shot, taken yesterday.

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Biggest impact change is the solar panels of course. You can also see some hop poles along the edge of the yard. The t-posts in the back corner are where the raspberries are planted. We moved our raised beds over to this side of the garden and added a few. Btw, the gas grill is relatively new too. After many years of being a charcoal only purist, I finally gave in to the convenience that is a gas grill. Don’t worry, still using charcoal to grill and smoke stuff some of the time.

Red, green and blue

After a very nice May for the most part, June has been nothing but rain. Sometimes terrible torrential downpours, sometimes just annoying bursts here and there to ruin the day. I hate to complain about water when other parts of the country are dry, but my plants are drowning over here. It’s a good thing we put in the swales in May or it would be even worse.

In spite of all that, we are somehow getting our first crop of the sweetest strawberries we could hope for.

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Don’t blink, you’ll miss them.

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At least the cooler weather plants like it. The greens are going nuts.

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Onions seem much happier in a raised bed than in the garden, to no one’s great surprise.

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The hops have already made it nearly to the first wooden support.

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The fifteen raspberry plants all made it and are getting plenty of leaves now. Here are 10 of them, they are even bigger today.

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And finally a view of the orchard, where all of the trees seem to be relatively happy so far and surviving the onslaught of water.

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First hatch

This spring we decided to try to hatch some of our own eggs since it turned out we had a rooster. Looks like we’ll end up with 9 chicks out of 16 eggs, which isn’t too bad. We might have gotten a couple more, but we had a power outage of all times right on hatch day. It was only for about 40 minutes, so I think the humidity stayed okay, but the temp might have dropped a bit too much. Can’t tell for sure. Could also be those chicks just weren’t viable to begin with.

What I didn’t realize with our Cuckoo Maran rooster is that all the chicks will have some bar/cuckoo patterning, so it’s going to be very hard to tell them apart. Hopefully as they get older and get their true feathers, there will be some distinctions. But we definitely didn’t get any of the stereotypical fuzzy yellow chicks. I still think they are really cool looking though.

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We are hoping to get at least one or two “Olive Egger” hens out of this, since we crossed the Maran (which has dark brown eggs) with our three blue egg layers (two Araucana, 1 Lavender Ameraucana). That cross should give us some type of dark green egg.

As far as the roosters, we’ll probably throw them out on pasture and then they will be headed for freezer vacation. In the meantime I need to learn how to butcher my own chickens from someone around here.

Spring tasks have begun

After a fairly nice spring week with temperatures in the 60s much of the time last week, it’s finally getting to the point where some outside work can start. This past weekend was a busy one.

One of the items on the agenda for this spring is to do some initial work on the landscape design we had created last summer. A week or so ago we got a bunch of diseased or badly shaped trees removed from the property. We have a lot of specific trees and spots in the plan, so it will be easier just to start over with exactly what we want. We’re planning to test a few evergreens for our windbreak and may also start planting along the driveway. I also ordered some smaller shade and decorative trees from Arbor Day just to see if I can get any of them to take off. They come very small and will take a long time, but the cost is significantly less than buying 3-4 year old trees. So we’re hoping to do a mix of more established plantings and let some things take a bit longer.

Another spot I am prepping this year is the front of the house. We plan to put up bushes in front of the porch (probably something like Red Twig Dogwood or Miss Kim Lilac). We’re also going to re-do the walkway from the drive to the porch and extend the perennial beds to flank both sides of the walk. I made a good dent in the prep over the weekend and here’s what it looks like so far.

Here is the spot for the revised walkway and perennial beds. The tulips are already poking up from a smaller bed against the house that we started when we moved here.

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Here is in front of the porch. I’m trying cardboard on one side and using the tiller on the other side. Tiller is faster, but a lot more manual labor.

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In addition, I’m moving an existing raised bed over to the other side of the garden and attempting to clear a spot for the small greenhouse I bought this spring. Unfortunately the ground is still very mucky and wet, so it’s still too sloppy to use as a base for a structure. Based on how our ground is, I’ll probably have to put down some stone and/or gravel to get a good base.

We also continue to get seeds and transplants into the ground, so far just cool weather loving plants like greens, brassicas, etc. The garlic and shallot are poking up above the soil. No asparagus yet and the strawberries are still mulched. Peas are getting sprouted indoors again and Ezra was excited to get to plant some of the snow peas this weekend. The herb spiral is now cleaned up and fresh soil added. Still not sure if some of the plants survived the winter, such as rosemary, thyme, sage and lavender. Hoping the heavy straw mulch did the trick.

Spiral

I put together one of the hop poles as outlined in the Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners by Herrick Kimball. I think it should work pretty well for hops at a backyard gardener level. If we ever get more into real hop growing, we’ll need real hop support poles. But this should be fine for now.

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The front garden is more dry than the back garden, but both are still too wet to plant. I tried to run the tiller on Saturday, but was only able to get a couple of runs in before giving up. It kept clogging up and it’s just not good for either the tiller or the soil when it’s like that. Got a couple of the dryer sections done though, so that will make room for a few things. We still have at least a month here before typical last frost, so no reason to rush. It’s supposed to turn colder again this week, but I imagine the week after that will be busy again as we have apple trees, cherry trees, raspberries and those Arbor Day trees all coming within the next month.

Finally getting some eggs

After a long winter with little egg production, things are finally looking up. Some of our new hens never came “online” last fall and ended up waiting until this year. But since Wednesday morning, we’ve gotten 17 eggs including 2 already today. That’s from 9 hens. Based on the color of the eggs, it looks like at least 6 hens are laying some of the time.

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2014 Year in Review

Well, between keeping up with all the projects and having a new baby, this blog has taken a bit of a hit. So this post won’t be too lengthy, but wanted to do a quick bullet point list of stuff we managed to accomplish this year.

  • Poultry
    • Built a brand new chicken coop based on Fresh Air Poultry Houses, large enough for 15 chickens or so.
    • Lost one of our original hens, but picked up 6 new ones.
    • Got our first blue eggs.
    • One of the 6 new “hens” turned out to be a rooster (the Cuckoo Maran). He is still on probation until we determine if he’s going to be nice and helpful or a pain.
    • Built a duck coop and planned to get ducks, but that didn’t happen this year. Hopefully next year.
    • Set up solar for the new coop, which I still hope to blog about at some point. It’s struggling a bit now with the limited daylight and snow/ice, but I think overall will work well for lighting. Would eventually like an automatic door as well.
  • Gardening
    • Put in 2 brand new garden plots. They did okay considering it was the first year, although we still have a lot of soil consistency and wetness issues to work on.
    • Started 4 blueberry bushes, 25 asparagus crowns (of which about half made it) and 75 strawberry plants (3 different varieties of 25 each).
    • Had some luck for the first time with the following this year
      • Melons
      • Pumpkins
      • Leeks
      • Eggplant
      • Gourds
      • Popcorn
      • Sweet peppers
    • Standouts included
      • Potatoes (despite web conditions and compacted soil)
      • Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage)
      • Some of the tomatoes
      • Soybeans
      • Flowers – we had decent luck with various flowers this year, including sunflowers, that we’ve struggled with before.
      • Peppers, although I always want more variety and quantity
    • Still can’t seem to get Brussels Sprouts to work.
    • Our cucumbers and squashes mostly succumbed to a vicious onslaught of insects. Need to do a bit more row cover and other stuff next year.
  • Landscape and other property work
    • Got a riding mower and shed to store it in.
    • Planted 4 apples trees.
    • Had a full landscape design done that we are really excited about implementing over the next 5-10 years.
    • Built 2 bay compost bin

Lots of plans for next year that I may get into in another post. Soon it will be time to buy and start seeds. By the way, if you are thinking about seeds, don’t forget about my new site PickAPacket.com and tell your friends. It allows you to compare prices and see varieties carried by 13 of my favorite non-GMO seed companies, including lots of heirloom, organic and open-pollinated varieties.

State of the garden

Well, it’s already July and I’ve been so busy working I haven’t had much time to blog about it.  The short story is our gardens are overall doing fairly well, considering it is the first year.  We are certainly fighting weeds, but that happens regardless.  The soil structure is definitely better in the front garden, where we dug up a spot that was more hay pasture than lawn.  Both need a lot of work, particularly when dry.  After a rain though, the soil really isn’t too bad and I think with some tender loving care in a few years we’ll start seeing some pretty good structure.

We had a chance to plant more peas this year and focused more on sugar/snap peas, since you get a lot more for the space and they are easier to freeze for later.  Ezra has taken a big liking to peas, particularly shell peas which he eats raw by the handfuls.  On most days he has to go “check his peas” and is actually already doing a pretty good job at learning when they are ripe.  It’s pretty cute.

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It’s been pretty interesting to see the difference having lots of direct sun makes.  It’s mostly a good thing, although we had a couple of issues with transplanting where the plants got some sun scald.  We’ve always had to worry more about wind or temperature than sun before.  The tomatoes I am especially happy with and we’ll see if the actual harvest lives up to the expectation.  But this is the first year I’ve been relatively happy with my tomato (and pepper) starts.  We should start seeing some ripe tomatoes here shortly, there are a bunch off small green ones on the vines.

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Here are some nice jalapeno plants, with some sweet basil in the background.

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More peppers, including the “fish” peppers in the foreground. We use red plastic mulch to help reflect more of the good light spectrum that peppers (and tomatoes) love.  Still trying to determine how much difference it makes.

Potatoes are coming along nicely and we had our first red new potatoes the other night.  We have a nice variety planted, including several different fingerling varieties.  This year we decided to try seed potatoes from Wood Prairie Farm in Maine.  Jim Gerritsen has a reputation as one of the top organic potato experts in the country, so curious to see how these do. I think this may be a hit and miss year, with the soil structure not being super loose the way potatoes like.

A lot of folks don’t realize potato blossoms are some of the prettiest flowers you’ll ever see in your garden, check out this fingerling variety in bloom right now.

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Here are a few other things that are starting to come into harvest. This is the time when all the hard work starts to pay off and you actually see some results from the labor, so I love this time of year.

One of our first broccoli crowns.

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First bush beans, a variety we discovered last year and really has become one of our go-to beans: Provider

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And of course the first of probably too many zucchini.

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Gardens from scratch

We’ve just about got our two garden plots in shape and have started some planting.  Took a lot of tilling and it’s still not great.  With the clay soil it is either too wet and mucky or it’s dry with hard clay balls.  So going to need a lot of amendments, but we knew that.  I’m making semi-permanent raised rows, which should help with drainage and give us a place to focus our compost, manure and other nutrients.

Here’s a few shots of what we’re starting from.

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Slightly closer look at the rows.

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We’ve got three raised beds with row cover going now.

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It’s been really warm for the last week and plants are suddenly taking off.  I had to mow the lawn already.  The lettuce seems happy.  This is lettuce I started indoors in February or March.

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Here is a view of the front garden, which will mostly be perennial berries, asparagus, etc.  We’re using it this year for a few other things, like peas, pumpkins and potatoes.

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And one last shot of some peas that appear to be thriving despite the conditions.

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