Garden & Agriculture Archive


Last Chance: Farm and Garden Sale

Saturday, March 28th, 2015

This is it. Your last chance to soak up the savings with our Farm and Garden Sale – but hurry it’ll be gone soon!

Whether you are planting or planning your garden, homestead or backyard paradise —or want to nurture a budding garden obsession—we’ve got a book for you!

30% Off ALL Farm & Garden Books
Until March 31st

Say hello to spring with the tips and projects below for inspiration; from bombproof sheet mulching, to starting your seedlings, planning the best garden, and more!

Happy gardening from your friends at Chelsea Green Publishing.

P.S. Don’t forget to check us out on Facebook and Twitter.


Discount codes do not combine with other offers—our books
already on sale for example. Free shipping for orders $100 or
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The Tao of Vegetable Gardening
Retail: $24.95
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Growing Hybrid Hazelnuts
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Integrated Forest Gardening
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Edible Forest Gardens (2 volume set)
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The Community-Scale Permaculture Farm
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The Nourishing Homestead
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Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation
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The Holistic Orchard
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The Resilient Farm and Homestead
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Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist
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The Small-Scale Poultry Flock
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The Resilient Gardener
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How to Plan the Best Garden Ever
How to Plan the Best Garden Ever
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The Seed Series: 3 Steps to Start Your Plants Off Right
The Seed Series: 3 Steps to Start Your Plants Off Right
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What is a Plant Guild?
What is a Plant Guild?
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Eliot Coleman’s Guide to Great Compost
Eliot Coleman’s Guide to Great Compost
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The Ultimate Raised Bed: How To Make An Herb Spiral
The Ultimate Raised Bed: How To Make An Herb Spiral
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Garden Planning: 48 of the Most Promising Veggies
Garden Planning: 48 of the Most Promising Veggies
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The Benefits of Perennial Vegetables
The Benefits of Perennial Vegetables
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Turn Barren Soil into Black Gold: 9 Simple Steps to Sheet Mulching
Turn Barren Soil into Black Gold: 9 Simple Steps to Sheet Mulching
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The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center Cookbook

The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer The Seed Garden The New Livestock Farmer

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Manage Your Chicken Manure: The Joys of Deep Litter

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Ever heard the phrase, “always follow your nose?” As it turns out, this is a good rule of thumb when it comes to chicken manure—but what is it that your nose is telling you, exactly?

In his book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, chicken expert Harvey Ussery gives us the low-down on not just what that classic manure-smell means, but how to eliminate it completely from your chicken coop through his innovative deep litter method. In the following excerpt, he teaches us what deep litter is, how it is particularly effective in a chicken coop, and how it keeps your manure healthy and (luckily for your sniffers) good-smelling.

Follow your nose to the excerpt below. And, if you are interested in other poultry-related topics including a pros and cons list from Carol Deppe on raising ducks vs. chickens and the wonders of receiving chicks in the mail, check out these posts:

Ducks Vs. Chicks by Carol Deppe
You’ve Got Mail. And it’s Chicks! by Ben Hewitt

*****

Manure Management in the Poultry House: The Joys of Deep Litter

“If you are around any livestock operation, regardless of species, and you smell manure—you are smelling mismanagement.” —Joel Salatin

Repugnance for what comes out the far end of an animal is not merely cultural conditioning—our senses are warning us of potential danger: Feces can be a vector for disease. Joel’s quote above implicitly advises us to trust that repugnance: If it smells bad, it could be dangerous. But it also implies that there are ways to manage manure so it doesn’t stink, giving us our most important hint that its threat has been neutralized. Properly handled manure, in other words, is not a danger.

Many readers of this book have already experienced the transformation of things yucky into not only something pleasant, but a valuable resource: the alchemy of the compost heap, which starts with manures and rotting vegetation and ends with compost, smelling as sweet as good earth, ready to fertilize the garden. The compost heap is our model for making the same transformation in the henhouse.

You assemble a compost heap from nitrogenous materials such as manures and spent crop plants, mixed with carbonaceous ones such as leaves and straw. Coarse materials will eventually compost, but if you make the effort to shred them more finely, the composting process speeds up considerably. Inconceivable numbers of microbes multiply in the pile, using the nitrogen in the manures and fresh green matter as a source of energy to break down the tough, fibrous high-carbon materials into simpler components. The ideal balance of carbon to nitrogen in the mix is 25 or 30 to 1. Too much nitrogen is signaled by the smell of ammonia, meaning that some of the nitrogen—a potential source of soil fertility— is being lost to the atmosphere. (Ammonia is a gas of nitrogen and hydrogen, NH3.) Moisture in the heap is essential to the microbes driving decomposition, though it must not be soaking wet—a condition that would inhibit decomposers while favoring pathogens. Oxygen is also essential for the decomposers, so you turn the heap over completely at least twice during decomposition, maybe more. Heat is a by-product of the composting process—a well-made compost heap becomes amazingly hot. The end result of this devoted effort is compost, one of the best possible fertility amendments the gardener can find.

It is possible to make the chicken coop in effect a slow-burn compost heap if you leave the earth itself as the floor, and keep it covered deeply with high-carbon organic litter. The sorts of decompositional microbes at work in the compost heap—and in the soil food web—migrate out of an earth floor into the deep litter; the slight wicking of moisture out of the earth helps them proliferate and thrive. (If you have an existing building with a wood or concrete floor to use for poultry housing, by all means avoid the effort and expense of building new. You can still use deep litter to keep the henhouse sweet, with a couple of tweaks discussed below.)

Oh, and all that laborious shredding and turning of the compost to assist its breakdown? Just leave that to the chooks.

Materials for Deep Litter

The poops laid down by the birds are rich in nitrogen, so naturally—as in the compost heap—we want a lot of carbonaceous material in the litter to balance it. In contrast to the ideal C:N ratio for a compost heap, however, the higher the carbon content of the deep litter, the better. That is, the more carbon in the mix, the more manure the litter can absorb before its nitrogen drives the C:N ratio out of balance, resulting in production of ammonia.

The high-carbon material chosen for the deep litter depends on what is cheapest and most readily available to you. It should ideally be somewhat coarse, so the scratching of the chickens fluffs it up and incorporates plenty of oxygen, assisting its breakdown by microbes and discouraging growth of pathogens. I prefer oak leaves, but that’s mostly because a close neighbor, who has half a dozen mature white oaks on her place, prefers to get rid of the accumulating leaves in the fall. She even hauls them over and dumps them in a big pile at my place. I say “God bless ’er!”

Kiln-dried wood shavings are excellent, with their extremely high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (500:1), but are an additional expense if you have to purchase them. For example, I recently bought some shavings for $5 per 2½-cubic-foot bale (expands to 8 cubic feet) to use as brooder bedding. Buying enough to deep-bed the entire henhouse would be expensive indeed. Wood chips might serve—they too are extremely high in carbon and last a long time before they have to be replaced. Joel Salatin uses them as the litter in his Raken House—he cleans out only once a year, when even this coarse woody material has been reduced to compost by the microbes and the constant working of the chickens. Sawdust is satisfactory, though it doesn’t fluff up as much as other materials. Whether using sawdust, wood shavings, or wood chips, be sure to use either kiln-dried or aged material—“green” woody materials may support the growth of molds, whose spores could be bad for your birds’ respiratory systems—and yours.

Note that old hay and certain crop residues such as soybean vines are not appropriate as litter materials— with a significant nitrogen content of their own, they do not effectively balance the nitrogen in the poultry droppings and quickly heat up.

What about straw? Many flocksters avoid the use of straw because, especially in the presence of the slight dampness of an earth floor, it can support the growth of Aspergillus molds, whose spores can cause serious respiratory problems. I have corresponded with flocksters, however, who report that they use straw over an earth floor without problems. Though I have in the past avoided straw litter, I am now experimenting with it as an addition to litter with a much higher proportion of oak leaves—so far with no mold problems. Note that there is no problem using straw as the litter over a wooden floor—the drier conditions in such a litter prevent growth of Aspergillus.

Nearby processing of agricultural crops may furnish other litter materials. Milling of corn, cane, buckwheat, or peanuts, for example, may generate corncobs, chopped corn or cane stalks, or hulls that are available cheaply enough to be used as deep litter.

Alchemy

Over many years showing countless visitors through my poultry house, I have found that—if my visitor has previously been in a chicken house—at some point she will stop talking, sniff the air with a puzzled look, and ask, “Why doesn’t it stink in here?” When that happens, I know I’m on the right track with manure management.

But the transformation of “nasty” to “pleasant” is just part of the magic. Remember the comparison of the deep litter to an active compost heap—the process in deep litter is driven by the same busy, happy gang of microbes. And among the metabolites of the microbes—by-products of their life processes—are vitamins K and B12 in addition to other immune-enhancing compounds. The chickens actually ingest these beneficial substances as they find interesting things to eat in the litter. Don’t ask me what they’re eating, but chickens on a mature deep litter do little other than scratch and peck. This is alchemy indeed: What started as repugnant and a potential vector for disease has been transformed into a substrate for health.

Should you think I’m spinning fairy tales, know that scientific experiments have borne out the benefits of a bioactive deep litter. In 1949 a couple of researchers at the Ohio Experiment Station published research on deep litter. I urge you to read the full report, but to summarize: One experiment compared two groups of growing pullets, both on old built-up deep litter, one group receiving a complete ration, the other fed a severely deficient diet. Mortality and weight gain in the two groups were virtually identical. In another experiment comparing pullets fed a severely deficient diet, groups on old, thoroughly bioactive litter suffered far lower mortality (7 as opposed to 23 percent) and achieved much higher weight gain (at twelve weeks, 2.34 compared to 1.64 pounds) than those on fresh litter. Both these and further experiments demonstrated: “Obviously, the old built-up litter adequately supplemented the incomplete ration.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations confirms these observations: “Microorganisms thrive on the manure in the litter and break it down. This microflora produces growth factors, notably vitamin B12, and antibiotic substances which help control the level of pathogenic bacteria. Consequently, the growth rate and health are often superior in poultry raised on deep litter.”

Deep-Litter Management

Factor in the use of deep litter when designing housing for your flock—deeper litter absorbs more manure and supports more microbes, so allow plenty of space for it. Aim for a depth of 12 inches if possible. Happily, in winter you can factor in as well the role of that thick layer of organic duff in insulating the coop from the frozen ground outside—and the heat generated in an active deep litter. The temperature is nothing like that of a well-constructed compost heap; but the warmth rising out of the pack moderates air temperature in the winter house. Caroline Cooper of British Columbia, Canada sees temperatures of −13 degrees Fahrenheit for two weeks at a stretch in a typical winter but finds that the bedding, 12 to 18 inches deep, is warm to the touch a few inches below the surface.

The great thing about deep litter is that the birds do most of the work. But there are a few things requiring input and monitoring on your part as well.

Stocking Density

Joel Salatin makes this observation about stocking density on a deep litter: If you allow 5 square feet per adult chicken, the birds’ constant scratching will turn into the litter all the manure laid down, even in high-poop areas such as those under the roosts. At 4 square feet, there will be some capping of manure under the roosts—formation of a crusty layer impervious to the hens’ scratching. At 3 square feet, there will be extensive capping. If there is capping of the manure in your coop, turn it over with a spading fork from time to time, and the chickens will break it up from the cap’s underside.

Let It Mellow

You will see advice that the coop should periodically be thoroughly cleaned out. But as the Ohio experiments demonstrated, it is not fresh new litter that supports the health of the flock, but “old built-up”—that is, highly biologically active—litter. Thus an important implication: Never clean out the litter completely. Once beneficial levels of microbial activity are established, don’t get rid of them by a de rigueur “thorough clean-out.” Over time, the buildup of the litter—or the need for compost for the garden—requires removing part of the litter. Leave as much as you can in place, however, to retain the benefits of the already active microbes and to “inoculate” the fresh material you add.

The Whiff Test

The caveat to the above rule against cleaning out too much of the litter is that inevitably the addition of nitrogen by the incoming poops will overwhelm the carbon in the mix—resulting in the generation of ammonia. Be alert to that first characteristic whiff: It is telling you that an imbalance must be corrected— both because nitrogen for soil fertility is being lost to the atmosphere, and because ammonia damages the chickens’ delicate respiratory tissues. Reestablishing the necessary balance is simply a matter of generously topping off with your high-carbon litter material of choice.

Do note that ammonia’s deleterious effects begin below the concentration our nose can detect (25 to 30 ppm). With experience, you will learn to read the developing condition of the litter, so you can add fresh carbonaceous material before it starts generating ammonia.

Avoid Wet Litter

If you water inside, avoid wet litter. A soaked litter is anaerobic—deprived of oxygen—and more likely to support growth of pathogens. Wet litter also generates ammonia far more readily than drier litter.

Remember that a lot of airflow through the coop helps keep the litter from getting too damp. Wet litter is more likely around the waterer, so check conditions there often; scatter any wet litter out over the total litter surface, where the chickens’ scratching will help dry it. Waterfowl are especially likely to wet the litter. Remember as well, however, that the busy critters in the litter need water for their work—monitor the litter to ensure that it is not powder-dry. Caroline Cooper reports that the winter air in British Columbia is extremely dry, so from time to time her husband, Shaen, carefully adds water to the litter to keep it active. If I have a waterer inside the chicken house, I frequently empty the small amount of water in its lip directly into the litter when rinsing it out.

Using the Compost

The deep-litter approach to manure management enlists the flock in the great work of soil fertility. Over time—figure at least a year—the litter will be reduced by the action of chicken and microbe to a finished compost. Sniff a handful: Like any fine compost, it will smell of earth with not the slightest hint of raw manure. In my experience litter at this stage of decomposition is ready to use directly in the garden—it will not burn plants, will not inhibit seed germination, and visibly boosts the growth of crops.

I have found litter from a coop with a wooden floor too raw to apply directly in the garden. Such litter should be further broken down in a conventional compost heap before use in the garden.

Disadvantages of Deep Litter

In close to three decades of relying on deep litter for best manure management, I have encountered only two potential disadvantages. The slight wicking of moisture from the earth into the litter is as said actually a benefit. However, we once had a summer of record-breaking rains, resulting in increased moisture in the soil under the deep litter (remember, we use an earthen floor). The litter was not actually wet as a result but was considerably damper than usual—damp enough to encourage the growth of molds. We had a number of eye infections that season, and lost an entire batch of nineteen guinea keets. Once I recognized the problem, I helped decrease the moisture content of the litter by adding a lot of thoroughly dry leaves and kiln-dried shavings.

The other potential disadvantage of deep litter over an earth floor—assuming the henhouse is not on a block perimeter foundation—is the absence of a wood or concrete floor as a barrier against digging predators such as foxes, coyotes, and dogs. My solution was to dig a barrier about 18 inches into the earth—metal roof flashing, but half-inch hardware cloth would work as well—around the entire perimeter of the poultry house. That’s a lot of digging (oh, my aching back!), but it prevents a lot of digging (by four-legged neighbors intent on dinner in your chicken house).

A Win–Win Solution

I cannot overemphasize the importance of deep litter in the henhouse for the most natural and therefore the most rational manure management. A deep-litter house is more pleasant for both owner and fowl, with the chooks doing most of the necessary work for us. Microbial action in the litter turns what is potentially disease causing into a substrate for health—indeed, ripe litter as demonstrated in the Ohio studies has positive feeding benefits. Deep litter provides mental health as well—the entertainment of happily scratching an endlessly interesting deep litter, in lieu of the stress of boredom. A deep organic duff insulates the floor of the winter poultry house, while the warmth of its decomposition moderates the chill. Finally, this magic process captures the fertility in the poops for soil building, the key to food self-sufficiency. What better illustration of the integrating strategies at the heart of this book?

 

Perennial Gardening: Grow More Food with Less Work!

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Congratulations, you survived another long winter! It is officially spring and time to dig in. If you’re looking for some new crops to liven up your garden and your palate, give perennials a chance.

Perennial vegetables are a food gardener’s dream. Plant them once, treat them well, and they’ll keep feeding you year after year. You’ll have plants you never dreamed could be dinner. We’ve included some perennial inspired projects below to get you started!

Farm and Garden Sale: 30% off Until March 31st

If you have a garden obsession—or want to nurture a budding obsession—we’ve got a book for you!

P.S. Keep checking our website for the month of March with more posts as part of our “Garden Series”. In case you missed it take a look at a few planting tips and tricks: 9 Simple Steps to Sheet Mulching, How to Plan the Best Garden Ever, The Ultimate Raised Bed: How To Make An Herb Spiral and Eliot Coleman’s Guide to Great Compost


~ ~ All Farm & Garden Books: 30% Off ~ ~

Farming the Woods
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Edible Forest Gardens Vol. I
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The Grafter's Handbook
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The Holistic Orchard
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Perennial Vegetables
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An Unlikely Vineyard
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The Resilient Farm and Homestead
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Edible Perennial Gardening
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Around The World in 80 Plants
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Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist
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Seed to Seed
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The Resilient Gardener
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Low Maintenance Perennials for Your Garden
Low Maintenance Perennials for Your Garden
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Food from the Forest
Food from the Forest: Fruits, Nuts, and More
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Harvesting Garlic
Harvesting Garlic
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How to Graft the Perfect Fruit Tree: Five Grafting Techniques
How to Graft the Perfect Tree
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6 Reasons Why You Need to Plant Perennials…Like Now
6 Reasons Why Perennials are the Best Bang for Your Buck
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Four Perennial Vegetables Perfect for Shady Spots
Four Perennial Vegetables Perfect for Shady Spots
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Permaculture Q&A: Michael Judd’s Blueberry Soil Mix
Michael Judd’s Blueberry Soil Mix
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The Six Pests Plaguing your Fruit Trees — and How to Control them Organically
Six Pests Plaguing Your Fruit Trees and How to Control Them Organically
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~ ~ Need More? Don’t Miss our New Releases   ~ ~

Growing Hybrid Hazelnuts

The Nourishing Homestead The Tao of Vegetable Gardening The Community-Scale Permaculture Farm

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more is applied after the discount is applied. (U.S. Orders Only)

Building a Sustainable Community: The D Acres Model

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

If you were going to create a community-based homestead or farm from scratch, where would you start? What building materials would you use? What crops would you grow and what animals would you raise? How would you develop an organizational structure and connect with your community? And, how would you make sure all of this evolves in perpetuity and is truly sustainable?

For the past twenty years, Josh Trought, founder of D Acres of New Hampshire, has been asking himself these very same questions and has come up with a model to help others seeking practical alternatives to the current environmentally and economically destructive paradigm.

D Acres is an ecologically designed educational center located on the slopes of the Appalachian Mountains in northern New Hampshire. In addition to it being a fully operational farm, it serves multiple community functions including a hostel for travelers, a training center for everything from metal- and woodworking to cob building and seasonal cooking, a gathering place for music, poetry, joke-telling, potluck meals, and much more.

In his new book, The Community-Scale Permaculture Farm, Trought describes not only the history of the D Acres project, but its evolving principles and practices that are rooted in the land, its inhabitants, and the joy inherent in collective empowerment.

Booklist calls it, “An immensely useful guidebook for organic farmers, cohousing advocates, and anyone interested in learning about a place where sustainability is truly possible.” Trought hopes this book encourages more people to become involved in the land-based service movement. He writes,

While the book may be valuable to most anyone, my purpose in writing was to offer a compilation of information that I wish was available when I began farming. By providing a basis of understanding of the farm system, I hope that readers can use this model as a platform for their own innovation and creative living.

From working with oxen to working with a board of directors, this book contains a wealth of innovative ideas and ways to make your farm or homestead not only more sustainable, but more inclusive of, and beneficial to, the larger community.

For more insight into Josh Trought’s work building a sustainable community at D Acres, check out the author interview below.

*****

A conversation with Josh Trought— educator, farmer, author, builder, community organizer, dreamer

A key aspect of D Acres that comes across in this book is its flexibility, and that it evolves based on the changing needs and ideas of both the onsite members and the surrounding community. Is there a project or idea that has surprised you because at first it seemed unlikely to work, but has instead flourished? 

JT: Transforming the land with pigs has been an eye opening process that we are continuing to explore. Experimenting with the number of animals, age of the critters, what time of year, in what soil conditions as well as rotational opportunities allows for continual observation and ongoing evaluation. At first it seemed that the compaction pigs caused would limit subsequent annual production without mechanization, but we had heard about planting potatoes in thick mulching of wood chips on compacted soils so we just tried to build the soil from the ground level up. At this juncture it has proven effective beyond our expectations and continues to yield benefits throughout the process.

I am also amazed at the attraction of people to tree houses and the playground is a super element I would not have foreseen when we began this project.

This book covers a lot of ground, from alternative building techniques, renewable energy, and holistic forestry to hospitality management, organic gardening, and more. All of these specialties require skilled labor. What are your strongest skills and what are you most excited to learn more about right now?

JT: I am really humbled by this whole process. I feel like a novice in so many ways.  grew up in the suburbs and have learned a lot by both doing that which I am passionate about and that which is necessary. I am excited about being part of a cultural continuum that will span into the future. I am excited to be part of a permaculture movement that will enrich the ecology for the next thousands of years. I imagine a future record/book such as Farmers for Forty Centuries that documents the evolution as members of this vibrant ecology on Earth. I am excited to be a very small part of this immense movement towards an ecological society.

My strongest skills are probably in construction design building with an emphasis on natural and reclaimed materials improvisation. I am really excited to continue seasonally improving my skills in the garden and the woodshop. I am necessarily compelled to learn more about human nature and our relations to one another.

As a child, you spent many summers with your family on this property in northern New Hampshire and now you have been living on it full-time for the past 17 years. What do you love most about the D Acres landscape and is there anything new about it that you have recently learned even after all these years?

JT: Every year I try to get more in tune with the natural cycle and rhythm of the land. The farm is so seasonally dynamic.  I like to notice the seasonal shifts as they occur.  I have started documenting these changes using my senses as well as journal and videography to view not only the seasonal changes, but also those that differ year to year.

I like getting more in touch with the water resource. I enjoy swimming in our local rivers and appreciate the resource for its ecological value. I have been more focused on how the water works on the land and our role to clean and purify this resource.

What advice do you give people that want to start their own community-scale farm?

JT: While I encourage them to do so, there are several comments I like to share with them. I think while it is important to start and initiate projects of this nature everywhere, it is also important to nurture existing projects. It is a good idea to join an existing project to learn from models that are up and running as well as support the projects in place.  We are proud of the people who have participated in our project and then gone out to start their own family farms or projects unique to their locales. I also think it is important to recognize that the D Acres model is a response to a wide array of circumstances. Any new entity would naturally be a reflection of the surrounding variables including the individual personnel and their strengths, land base, and community needs.

You’ve Got Mail. And it’s Chicks!

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

There’s nothing quite like having a box of cute, fluffy chicks arrive in the mail. It’s miraculous, notes author and homesteader Ben Hewitt, that a newly hatched chick can survive without food and water for exactly the amount of time it takes to mail a package from anywhere in the United States to anywhere else in the United States.

If you’re considering purchasing some mail-order chicks, read the following excerpt from Hewitt’s recently released The Nourishing Homestead for tips on housing, fencing, feed, and more.

Or, if you think ducks might be more your speed, here’s a comparison of ducks vs chickens from Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener.

Cheep! Cheep!

Chickens and Other Poultry

The crazy thing about chickens is that you can order them through the mail. Actually, this is not entirely true, because you don’t order chickens through the mail; you order chicks. Day-old chicks, to be exact, and it shouldn’t be possible but it is, because chicks hatch with just enough energy in their tiny bodies to live for two or three days without food or water. As it turns out, this is precisely long enough for them to be shipped via mail from pretty much anywhere in the United States to pretty much anywhere else in the United States.

Although I have become
 accustomed to it by now, it 
would be hard to overstate just
 how extraordinary and delightful it is to walk into our post 
office each spring and hear the
 cheeping of our freshly hatched 
birds from behind the counter.
 The notion that something so
 fragile and alive can be sent
 through the mail seems to me 
to border on the miraculous. I
 mean, is it merely coincidence
 that just-hatched chicks can survive without food and water for precisely the amount of time it takes them to traverse America by train, plane, and automobile? Surely it is. Surely there could not have been some sort of grand plan in place since the days of the Red junglefowl, the Asian bird from which all modern chickens have evolved over the past 5,000 years. But still: How many other newborn creatures can survive being enclosed in a cardboard box and then sent on a dark, hurtling journey across thousands of miles?

Every year, there comes a day in late May or early June when the boys and I drive home from the post office with a box of chicks on the passenger seat, filling the car with the smell of wood shavings and something that’s harder to identify, and which is perhaps best described as the smell of chick. It is a warm smell, and if it is possible for a smell to have a tactile sensation, it is the smell of soft. The boys always want to pull “just one or two” out of the box to hold on their laps for the ride home; imagining the chaos that would inevitably result, I always prevail upon them to wait for the three or four minutes it takes us to get home.
At home, we carry the box gingerly to our brooder setup, which consists of an open-floored “box” of screwed-together boards, about 12 feet by 12 feet. We assemble our brooder in one of the small greenhouses, although doing so requires constant monitoring, as only a short period of sun on an otherwise cool and cloudy day can fry the birds if the sides aren’t raised. A heat lamp dangles from overhead, low enough that the heat is directed into the box, but high enough that there’s no danger of fire. We make a crude “peak” with two-by-fours, over which we drape plastic to retain heat. This allows us to run the 250-watt heat lamp intermittently, saving electricity, and we can even swap the high-watt bulb for a 100-watt incandescent bulb on warmer days. For the next three weeks, until their feathers come in enough to insulate them from the cool nights of late spring and early summer, this is their home. We bring them clippings of grass and other organic material every day, along with whatever waste milk the pigs aren’t consuming.

Chickens are simple creatures. And while fast-growing meat birds seem to be particularly lacking in charisma, the same cannot be said of layers. Perhaps I should not be so quick to admit this, for it may reveal something unflattering about our general level of sophistication, but this family has passed many hours doing little more than watching our birds. This was particularly true in the early years of our homestead, when we allowed our small flock of layers to roam in the yard, close to the house. Owing to the preponderance of vegetables in this area today, and chickens’ fondness for perfectly formed green peppers, we no longer allow them to range near the house. But I won’t soon forget the times Penny and I sat on the front stoop of the house, watching those curious birds do their little dance.

Pasture Requirements

Again we have a creature that is well adapted to a wide variety of landscapes and ecosystems. Like pigs, chickens do very well in forested areas; after all, every single chicken alive today evolved from jungle fowl. But so long as they have some shelter and shade, chickens also do very well on established pasture, and there’s nothing like a good dose of chicken shit to turn grass a shade of green so vibrant it looks digitally enhanced.

The surprising thing about chickens, particularly given how small and light they are, is their capacity to do tremendous damage to the soil via compaction. In remarkably short order, they can turn a small, fenced-in pen into a barren wasteland of stone-hard soil. Not only does this ensure they’re extracting few nutrients and calories from the ground, but it also does damage that can be remedied only over long periods of time or via mechanical intervention.

It’s hard to prescribe a fixed amount of pasture per chicken; what I can say is that we keep our flock of about 20 layers enclosed in a single length of flexnet for perhaps two weeks before moving them. We move our meat birds much more frequently, mostly because there are 500 percent more of them, but also because they are much larger than our layers.

Fencing

We utilize the same flexnet for our chickens as we do for the goats and sheep. It’s important to move their shelter regularly within the flexnet, or they’ll quickly “burn” the ground under the shelter with nitrogen-rich manure. How often you have to move it depends entirely on how many birds and at what stage of growth they’re at; when we have 100 mature meat birds, we move it at least twice per day. When we have a dozen layers, maybe only every other week.

Housing

There are innumerable designs for portable chicken coops, and if none of those ring your bell, you can always buy a $1,500 unit from Williams-Sonoma that comes with “white glove delivery” including on-site assembly. Or you can do like we do and knock together simple structures from materials on hand. We have constructed a variety of mobile structures over the years and have come to rely on a very light “chicken tractor” built on skids and covered by a tarp for our meat birds. The lack of weight is critical, since we’re often moving it twice per day and because the nature of our land means that many of these moves are in an uphill direction.

For the layers, we prefer a somewhat sturdier structure that of course accommodates nest boxes and roost poles. In general, the simpler and lighter the design, the better it’s worked for us. We prefer structures that offer plentiful headroom for those times we need to enter the coop and that feature at least one clear roof panel to provide more natural light for the birds. We’re also extremely fond of having nest box access from outside the coop.

By winter, the meat birds’ home is the freezer (with a last move to the oven or pot of bubbling lard) and the layers usually move into the tomato greenhouse, which has been outfitted with nest boxes, roost poles, and copious amounts of bedding to reduce compaction.

We also maintain a permanent, fenced-in run with an old coop that we semi-jokingly refer to as the “Problem Poultry Pen.” The PPP becomes home to any birds with a propensity to escape their portable coops, until we can either determine how they’re escaping or eat them. In keeping with our theory of building flexibility into our animal housing, the PPP has also served as a winter home for pigs.

Summer/Winter Feed

Both our layers and meat birds receive organic grain, table scraps, and, if there’s more than the pigs can consume, waste milk. The milk is particularly helpful in curbing the meat birds’ enormous appetite for grain. We are constantly scheming ways to reduce the grain inputs to this small farm, but we have not yet evolved to the place where our birds do not require grain. This summer, we are planning to incorporate Harvey Ussery’s maggot feeding system (sticking the carcass of a small animal into a bucket with lots of holes and letting the maggots that form drop to the ground for the birds), as well as cultivate a plot of comfrey for chicken feed.

I know some homesteads that simply allow their layers to have run of the place, and the hens seem to find plenty to eat without supplemental feed, at least during the warmer months. But they also seem to find places to lay their eggs that are never seen by the human eye. Never mind what a flock of hungry hens can do to a row of almost-ripe green peppers.

In a further attempt to curtail our grain habit, we are also experimenting with ducks again, in the hope that their proclivity for foraging will reduce our dependence on purchased grain. During the brooding stage for all our poultry, we bring clippings of grass and other greenery. Another trick we learned from Harvey Ussery is to feed hard-boiled eggs. Of course, this only works when we have an excess of eggs.

Minerals

In the winter, we mix a couple of cups of kelp with every 50-pound bag of grain. In addition to supporting the health of the birds, the kelp helps to keep the yolks dark yellow when there is a lack of other greenery to eat.

Breeds

We’ve been all over the map with chicken breeds, from heritage to commonplace. In all the years we’ve kept poultry for eggs and meat, the only breed that’s really stuck is the Kosher King. Kosher Kings are relatively fast-growing meat birds that in our experience, are vigorous, prone to foraging, and still capable of producing 6- to 7-pound roasters at 10 weeks. They are also exceptionally tasty, producing a large quantity of the dark meat we covet. We purchase cockerels from a small hatchery in Pennsylvania called Clearview Hatchery. There is no website, and the owner always answers the phone himself, which might be part of the reason his prices are so reasonable.

Interestingly, Kosher Kings are the very breed permaculturist Ben Falk discusses in his book The Resilient Farm and Homestead as being difficult to contain and
 generally unsuited to his
 farm. Our divergent experi
ences with the exact same 
breed are yet another
 reminder that the powers of
 observation should always
 trump the dogma of concept.

For layers, we have experimented widely, looking for catchphrases like great forager, exceptionally cold hardy, and consistent layer. We’ve been quite satisfied with Golden Comets, Rhode Island Reds, and Lace Winged Wyandottes, but we’re always experimenting. This year, we’re getting Black Javas, mostly because we have a local source for chicks.

Get Garden Reading! 30% Off Gardening Books

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Want a great garden? It all starts with a good plan. You’ll find growing is easier than you ever imagined.

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To help jump-start your garden planning we’ve included some tips and inspiration from our expert authors; from planning the best garden, to starting your seedlings right and how to pick the best crop for your garden.

Keep an eye out for the month of March and more of our “Garden Series” with planting tips and tricks for the coming gardening season.

Happy gardening from your friends at Chelsea Green Publishing.

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Ducks Vs. Chickens

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Thinking about adding a laying flock to your backyard, but having trouble deciding between ducks and chickens? Agonize no more. Carol Deppe (The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties) has the lowdown on which type of poultry might be right for you.

Deppe is a duck-lover at heart. In the following excerpt from The Resilient Gardener, she explains that ducks are easy to herd, have routine egg laying hours, and are superior to chickens in terms of pest control. However, she concedes that chickens are more readily available, usually cheaper to purchase, and are a better confinement animal, which is an important factor if space is an issue.

We’ll be sharing additional content about our feathered friends in the coming weeks, including how ducks and chickens fit into a farm ecosystem, how to make your own chicken feeder and waterer, and much more.

For now, check out Deppe’s analysis below and decide for yourself if you’re on Team Duck or Team Chicken.

*****

Ducks versus Chickens 

By Carol Deppe

The most ecologically well-adapted livestock for the maritime Northwest is the duck. The best-laying duck breeds lay better than the best-laying chicken breeds. Ducks can free-range year-round in our region. Ducks forage much more of their diets than chickens and eat a larger variety of natural foods common here. Ducks eat snails and slugs, and are better for yard and garden pest control. Ducks love our weather. (I should perhaps mention my biases. I’ve kept five breeds of chickens, two breeds of geese, and seven breeds of ducks. The ducks are my favorites, especially Ancona ducks, and at this point, I keep only a flock of thirty-two Ancona ducks. But I like chickens too.)

Eggs

Many people who are allergic to chicken eggs can eat duck eggs. A few people are allergic to both. I have also run into occasional people who claim to have problems eating duck eggs who can eat chicken eggs, though this pattern seems to be rare. Ducks from the better-laying breeds and strains can lay well enough to earn their keep for years. Laying chickens are usually not producing economically beyond the second year.

Ducks are much easier to control than chickens. Ducks of laying breeds can be easily confined with a fence only 2 feet high (as long as they have food and water and their buddies with them). Most of the egg breeds of chickens can fly well enough to get over any fencing. Keeping them out of the garden or the eaves of the porch often requires wing-clipping every bird.

Ducks tend to lay eggs that are bigger than chicken eggs from a breed of equivalent size. Some dual-purpose duck breeds (such as Anconas) lay eggs that are very big for the size of the bird.

Ducks normally lay their eggs between 4:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. daily. This means they lay their eggs in the nests in their night pens instead of hiding a nest in the yard. You can pick up the duck eggs just once per day, at the same time that you let the ducks out to forage. Chickens have a twenty-six-hour laying cycle, meaning each hen lays a little later each day. So a flock of chickens is laying at all times of the day and night. When allowed to free-range, they sometimes come back to lay in their nests and sometimes don’t. So recovering all the eggs can be problematic.

Pest Control

Chickens can help with pest control in yards, gardens, and pastures under certain circumstances. But chickens don’t eat big slugs or snails, two of the most important garden pests in the Northwest. (Some chickens may eat small slugs or snails.) And the scratching of chickens tears up plantings and scatters manure and dirt over the rest. Ducks are considered the premier critter for pest control. All the laying breeds of ducks are big enough to eat even 8-inch banana slugs, and do so with enthusiasm, swallowing them the way a sword swallower does a sword.

Moving Your Ducks and Chickens Around

Ducks are easy to herd. You can use one or two herding staffs, or you can just walk behind the ducks with your hands extended sideways, making scooping motions in the direction you want the ducks to go and saying, “Let’s go, ducks.”

In Asia, the free-range egg industry is based upon ducks that are kept in secure permanent quarters at night and herded to various separate foraging areas during the day. Since chickens can’t be herded, the night pen or house usually needs to be in or adjacent to the foraging area. To rotate chicken forage, you move their house, which must be portable. To rotate duck forage, you just herd the ducks to a different spot during the day, leaving their permanent pen in its permanent spot.

The crowing of roosters is much louder than any noise ducks make. Neighbors are less likely to hear or object to the sounds of ducks.

Climate Considerations

In many areas free-range chicken eggs are only seasonal, but free-range duck eggs are year-round. Here in the maritime Northwest, the free-range duck is happy foraging outdoors the entire year, and ducks of appropriate breeds are good winter layers. Ducks delight in cold rain. Chickens are so miserable in cold rain and use so much energy keeping warm that they either don’t lay or their egg production isn’t economical. The duck is the only way to get economical, year-round, free-range egg production in the maritime Northwest and other areas with cold, wet winters. (In areas where the ground is frozen much of the winter, there is no way to get winter free-range egg production from any poultry.)

Diet

Ducks can forage a larger part of their diet than chickens. Chickens eat mostly grain and animal life, with greenery as a salad. Ducks eat grain and animal life but also considerably more greenery than chickens, including grass, as long as it is succulent and growing.

In addition, ducks can make excellent use of wetlands, waterways, lakes, and ponds.

Ducks are more resistant to disease than chickens. Ducklings are hardier than chicks. Ducklings are more heavily feathered and have a layer of subcutaneous fat. They are designed for cold, wet weather. Ducklings can be outdoors earlier in spring than chicks. If allowed to waterproof themselves properly, ducklings can be out foraging in their third week. Chicks are normally kept indoors the first six to eight weeks.

Ducks, however, are much more vulnerable to four-footed predators than chickens, especially chickens with intact wings. Some people with marginal fencing or night housing can keep chickens but not ducks.

Chickens are much more readily available and usually cheaper. Day-old chicks of many breeds are often sold sexed, so you can get exactly as many of each sex as you want. Most laying breeds of ducks are much less available and are usually sold as straight-run only, meaning you don’t know how many of what sex you’re getting.

Water

Ducks need bathing water. Chickens maintain their skin and feather condition via dust bathing. Some people find it much easier to provide a dry dust bath than a bathing pool. Books sometimes say ducks can be raised without bathing water. Although this is technically true, raising ducks that way isn’t kind. Ducks keep their skin and feathers in condition by bathing in water and preening and coating their feathers with wax. All you need for a handful of ducks is a kiddy pool of water changed a couple of times a week. My ducks have a small pond I made by propping up a piece of pond liner on the hillside so I can open one side and drain it and hose it down easily. If you are unwilling to provide bathing water for ducks, I suggest you get chickens.

Chickens are a much better confinement animal than ducks. Ducks drink far more water, have a much looser, more liquidy poop, and need more space when confined than chickens. Some people need to confine their poultry and bring the garden produce and food to the birds. Chickens are usually the better choice for that situation.

In areas where winter is harsh and the ground is frozen or covered with snow for months, any poultry has to be confined. This fact can translate into chickens being the most workable option. If I lived in Minnesota or Wisconsin, or upstate New York, I think I would keep chickens instead of ducks.

Don’t Put Ducks in a “Chicken Tractor”

The “chicken tractor” is a small portable house with no floor that is moved around to fresh ground every day or so. There are many books and articles about this style of poultry keeping. It is actually a confinement situation in which the birds get a little greenery but not actually very much animal material. It works best for commercial broiler chickens, which don’t forage very actively or move far from the feeders anyway. Laying hens in chicken tractors produce eggs that are more a commercial-diet-based egg than a free-range one. However, chicken tractors are the only option many people have for their laying flock, and the chicken tractor, managed optimally, produces eggs that are better tasting, probably more nutritious, and certainly more ethical than those from commercial caged layers.

Chicken tractors work best with chickens. You can’t just substitute ducks. Laying chickens roost on raised perches at night and will use nests stacked in a bank against the wall. So the chickens use three dimensions of the space in a small movable house. The “chicken tractor” usually has one wall of nests that can be accessed from the side without entering the pen and a built-in roost on one side or end. A chicken tractor for ducks is problematic. Ducks use only floor space, and so need much more floor space than chickens, even before taking into account that their manure is much wetter. They need extra floor space for nests and resting. They need much more water and bigger water containers and bathing water. By the time you have given the ducks a big enough pen to be comfortable for them, it won’t be able to hold many birds in it, and it will not be very portable.

In America and Europe, chicken eggs are the standard. Most people don’t know how to cook duck eggs. During the last two decades, I’ve developed cooking methods and recipes for an American style of duck egg cookery. If you sell duck eggs, you will need to do some customer education on how they should be cooked.

Many people will enjoy trying both chickens and ducks. Generally, the two species should not be brooded together or housed in the same night quarters (unless they’re in separate pens). They have different requirements. However, chickens and ducks can usually share their daytime foraging area.

Gardening Tips from Eliot Coleman: How to Start Seedlings in a Cold Frame

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Are you ready to get a start on the gardening season? With a cold frame you can jump in now.

A cold frame, essentially a garden bed surrounded by an angled frame and covered with glass, is a simple way to harness the heating power of the sun to get seedlings going before it’s warm enough to plant them outside unprotected. Everything but the most heat-loving vegetables (tomatoes and peppers) can be started this way. Plus, a cold frame has the added advantage of getting your plants into the real soil right away, instead of constricting their roots in trays, which can lead to unnecessary stress.

Eliot Coleman is the master of growing vegetables year-round, and he has some simple guidelines for using cold frames to start seedlings right. If he can do it in freezing coastal Maine, you’ve got no excuse!

Related Links:
Eliot Coleman’s Guide to Creating a Root Cellar
Eliot Coleman’s Guide to Great Compost
Three Steps to Start Your Plants Off Right

* * * * *

The following excerpt is from Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables From Your Home Garden All Year Long by Eliot Coleman.

Your cold frame can serve as a greenhouse for starting seedlings

You can use it for all seedlings that are transplanted except the early-spring sowings of heat-lovers such as tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. They should be started in a sunny window in the house. For all the others, the cold frame is an ideal place to start growing. Once you begin raising seedlings in the cold frame, you will find it so simple and successful that you will never go back to flats on windowsills. Here’s how to do it:

Spread potting mix about two to three inches deep in whatever part of a frame you wish to use for seedlings. Lay 3-inch boards around the edge as a border, then treat that area as if it were a flat: make furrows, drop in evenly spaced seeds, cover them shallowly, mark them with name and date on a small stake, and water them lightly with a fine sprinkler. The rows can be as close together as they would be in a flat. Space seeds evenly in the seeding row so they won’t be crowded. We always try to avoid plant stress at all stages of growing. It takes a little more time, but the results are worth it.

Cutting the Seedlings into 3-inch Blocks Inside the Cold Frame

When the seedlings are up, move them to an adjoining section of the frame, which also has a 2 inch covering of potting mix over the soil. Do this as soon as you can handle the seedlings. Within reason, the younger you transplant a seedling, the better. Dig under each one with a small, pointed dowel, lifting and loosening the roots as you extract them from the soil. Always be gentle with seedlings. Hold them by a leaf, not the stem, so you don’t crush the vital parts if you squeeze too hard.

Poke holes in the potting soil of the adjoining section with the dowel to make space for the roots, then tuck them in lightly. A good distance for all seedlings is 3 inches apart. When they are large enough to transplant to the garden, use a knife to cut the soil into cubes with a seedling in the center of each. It is just like cutting a tray of brownies. If you make sure the soil is moist (sprinkle if necessary before cutting), the blocks will hold together nicely. You can use a bricklayer’s or right-angle trowel to slice underneath each cube, lift it out, and set it in a tray for transport to its permanent garden home.

There are many advantages to growing seedlings in a cold frame

Scooping the Seedling with the Transplanting Tool

No flats are necessary. There is no potting soil mess in the house. The seedlings will be hardy because the cold frame is not artificially heated. Any additional hardening off is easily accomplished by opening the lights slightly wider.

Finally, watering is more forgiving, since your seedlings are connected to the earth and they can’t dry out as quickly as they can in the limited confines of a flat. Thus, an occasional lapse in watering is not disastrous.

The intermediate transplanting from the seedling row to the 3-by-3-inch spacing makes transplanting seedlings a two-step process. We think it’s worth the effort because the intermediate step has been found to stimulate increased root regrowth, resulting in slightly more vigorous transplants. You can do it as a one-step process by simply starting out with the 3-by-3-inch configuration and planting three seeds in each square. After they emerge, you thin to the best one in each square and proceed as before.

Planting a Seedling in the GardenWith some crops, we use a Dutch idea called multiplants and sow four or more seeds in each square with no intention of thinning them. This allows us to grow transplants in groups rather than as singles. The onion crop will serve as a good example of how to go about it. Sow five seeds together. Plan for four of the seeds to germinate. When the onion seedlings are large enough to go to the garden, cut out the blocks as usual and set them out at a spacing of 10 by 12 inches.

If you were growing single plants in rows they would be set 3 inches apart. Four plants in a clump every 12 inches in a row is the same average spacing as one plant every 3 inches. Each onion is allowed just as much total garden space,and the yield is the same. The onions growing. together push each other aside gently and at harvest time are lying in a series of small circles rather than single rows. If all the seeds germinate and there are five onions in each clump, that’s no problem.

In addition to onions, you can use the multiplant technique for early transplants of beets, broccoli, cabbage, leeks, scallions, and spinach. Not only is this system more efficient because four plants can be transplanted as quickly as one, but it also can be used to control size when desired. A clump of broccoli, for example, will yield three or four smaller central heads rather than one large one. For many families, the smaller unit size is more desirable.

Get Ready for Maple Sugaring Season

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

Everything is better with maple syrup. At least that’s what you’ll hear when you ask Vermonters. So what better way to solidify your love for all things maple than to learn how to make it yourself?

If you only have a couple of trees nearby — say in your backyard — author Michael Farrell (The Sugarmaker’s Companion) has some simple advice for you to get started tapping a few trees and collecting the sap by bucket. The following excerpt is adapted and condensed from Chapter 5 of his book.

If you have access to a larger grove of trees you might also want to read these additional excerpts from The Sugarmaker’s Companion on producing value-added products from your collected tree sap.

*****

Maple Syrup 101
by Michael Farrell

Backyard Sap CollectionWhen to Tap

One of the most difficult decisions you have to make from year to year in your sugaring operation is deciding when to tap. I always recommend tapping just a few trees in January and February to determine what is going on with sap flow conditions. In relatively cold areas, even when the temperatures get above freezing in January and February, the amount of sap flow can be negligible. The trees are basically frozen, and it takes an extended period of warm temperatures to induce substantial sap flow. In warmer regions where the winter isn’t as severe, optimum temperature fluctuations usually happen all winter and the trees may be producing a decent amount of sap in January and February. If you see this happening in your test trees, you’ll want to tap the rest of your sugarbush to catch the early sap runs.

How to Tap

Finding the Right Spot

The first step in tapping is to find a good spot to drill the hole. It doesn’t matter how nice a hole you drill, what type of spout you use, or what level of vacuum you are pulling if you have drilled into a bad section of the tree. To get a decent amount of high-quality sap, you need to drill into clear, white sapwood. It is important to avoid previous tapholes and the associated stain columns as well as other defects and rotten areas on the trunk. Large seams and wounds are easy to identify and avoid, but it takes a trained eye to locate old tapholes.

Drilling the Hole

Sugaring Tap

Some people advocate drilling the hole directly into the tree whereas others recommend drilling at a slight upward angle. I usually try to achieve a perfectly straight hole but always err on the side of making it at a slight upward angle whenever necessary. No matter how you drill the hole, be sure to use a relatively new, clean, sharp drill bit that is intended for drilling into maple trees.

When you are pulling the drill out of the tree, always examine the shavings to make sure that they are pure white. If you get brown or dark-colored shavings, you have drilled into a bad part of the tree. Your sap yield will be negligible, and any sap that does flow may have a yellow tinge to it and impart off-flavors to your syrup.

Setting the Spout

The final step is placing the spout in the tree. It takes some practice to figure out how hard to tap on the spout to get it nice and snug without overdoing things. Not tapping in hard enough can cause the spout to be too loose, creating a vacuum leak. On the other hand, tapping too hard can potentially cause the wood to split, which in turn leads to vacuum leaks, lost sap, and increased wounding at the taphole. Most sugarmakers use regular hammers to set the spouts, but you don’t necessarily hammer the spouts in. Just a few gentle taps will usually do the trick until you hear a thumping sound. As soon as you can hear the difference, stop tapping on the spout.

Row of Sugaring buckets

The Seed Series: Choosing the Right Seed Crop

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

The vast majority of seed-propagated vegetables most used worldwide fall into nine plant families. Understanding the characteristics of these particular families will give you a better idea of which crops are best suited for your climate.

In the following excerpt from the award-winning book The Organic Seed Grower, author John Navazio provides some key questions you should be asking to determine if a crop will grow where you live.

For more seed-related content, check out all our excerpts from “The Seed Series:”
Seed Saving Basics by Janisse Ray
Become a Plant Breeder by Carol Deppe
Three Steps to Start Your Plants Off Right by Ben Hewitt
A DIY Seed Bank by Carol Deppe

* * * * *

SEED CROP CLIMATES
By John Navazio

While there are several dozen plant families that contain species of crop plants that are commonly used by different agricultural societies around the world, there are only nine families that house the great majority of seed-propagated vegetables that are the most important across most cultures worldwide. Through learning a bit about the characteristics of these nine families of the most cultivated vegetable crops, it is possible to get a better feel for which crops are best suited to a particular climate, especially when growing them as a seed crop.

SEED PLANT CHARACTERISTICS

There are a number of prominent characteristics of cultivated plants that are quite similar within the nine plant families in which most of our vegetable crops are found. One of the first things someone researching our cultivated crop plants finds is that closely related crops within a particular family usually share a number of prominent features. We know that different crops within the same family often share certain phenotypic traits, such as structural or reproductive characteristics.

Flower structure has long been a principal way of categorizing plants into families. The type and structure of the fruit, which is indeed a fertilized ovary of the flower, has also classically been used to assign different plants of the angiosperms (the true flowering plants) to various species and genera. As to structural features, we all know that crop species in the same family usually share a common leaf type, arrangement of their leaves on the main stem, type of stem, and so forth.

Plant structure can also be a reflection of the function of a particular part of the plant. Certainly as you get to know the different crop members of a plant family you may begin to see more of the commonalities among these species. This way of viewing crops can prove quite useful when you consider growing unfamiliar seed crops for the first time and realize that it is possible to culturally handle them in a similar fashion to a seed crop with which you have experience.

Here are a few categories in which crops within a particular family share traits that will help you decide whether the crop is suited to your environment:

1. Evolutionary past

  • Center of origin. Is your climate similar to that of its evolutionary past?
  • Climate. Is your climate similar to the climate where it’s currently grown?
  • Structure and flower parts of the family definitely relate to shared ancestry.

2. Environment. Characterize the climate that the crop thrives in.

  • Cool-season crops need cool weather to mature high-germination seed.
  • Intermediate crops will grow in cool or warm climes and mature seed in warm conditions.
  • Heat lovers need heat to thrive and produce high-germ seed.

3. Life cycle. While some patterns exist across families, there are clearly families that contain annual/biennial/perennial species.

  • Annuals complete their entire life cycle in one season.
  • Winter annuals are planted for fall growth and flowering early in the next growing season.
  • Biennials need most of two seasons to complete their life cycle, with vernalization between the first season of vegetative growth and the second season of reproductive growth.
  • Perennials. This includes very few seed-propagated vegetable crops.

4. Daylength sensitivity. Is the crop sensitive to daylength?

  • Daylength-sensitive crops only flower at certain daylengths.
  • Daylength-neutral crops flower at various daylengths.

5. Reproductive biology. Self-pollinated species versus cross-pollinated species.

  • Cross-pollinated species. Is on-farm isolation possible?
    • Wind-pollinated. Pollen travels far and doesn’t require insects.
    • Insect-pollinated. Are pollinating insects present?
  • Self-pollinated species. How many on-farm isolations are possible?
    • Faithful selfers are highly self-pollinated; several crops are possible.
    • Promiscuous selfers—how many isolations are possible?

6. Presence of disease. Is disease a limiting factor in your environment?

  • Diseases of the vegetative stage—is it a limiting factor?
  • Seedborne diseases—are they endemic and economically limiting?

7. Presence of insect pests. Are insects a limiting factor in your environment?

  • Insects of the vegetative stage—are these a limiting factor?
  • Insects of the seed—are they endemic and economically limiting?

CLIMATIC ZONES

Here is a reference list of the four major climatic types in which vegetable seed crops are grown. The important climatic considerations that determine each zone’s suitability are given, followed by the crops that are most well adapted to that particular zone. Note that some crops are suited to more than one climate and therefore have a wider adaptation to environmental conditions for producing high quality.

Cool-Season Dry-Seeded Crops

All dry-seeded crops are formed in dry pods or in clusters along the stem of the plant and are essentially harvested like grains. They produce the best quality seed when they mature and are harvested in seasonally dry, low-humidity regions; the so-called Mediterranean climate. These cool-season, dry-seeded crops are best grown in the cooler reaches of the Mediterranean climate, where cool, often wet weather predominates during prolonged springs, and summers are mild and dry with little or no rainfall through harvest. Cool-season crops do not handle hot weather, especially through the earliest stages of their reproductive cycle. These crops form the highest quality seed when temperatures are generally somewhere between 60 and 75°F (16 to 24°C) during pollination, fertilization, and the earliest stages of embryo and endosperm development in late spring and early summer. After this initial formation and development of the seed they are able to tolerate average summer daytime high temperatures between 75 and 85°F (24 to 29°C) but thrive in relatively cool summers, especially where daytime high temperatures rarely exceed 80°F (27°C) to produce the highest-quality seed.

Seed crops that excel under these conditions: Spinach, beet, cilantro, Asian greens, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Chinese cabbage, parsnip, mustards, Swiss chard

Warm-Season Dry-Seeded Crops

This climate is similar to the Cool-Season Dry-Seeded parameters above but with temperatures that are consistently warmer throughout all the months of the growing season. Warmer spring temperatures result in more rapid early growth and development for these crops over the cool-season dry-seeded crops. Daytime high temperatures during flowering and seed setting should generally not exceed 78 to 85°F (26 to 29°C). But after this initial formation and development of the seed these crops are able to routinely tolerate summer daytime average high temperatures between 85 and 92°F (29 to 33°C) when producing high-quality seed.

Seed crops that excel under these conditions: Broccoli, kale, collards, celery, radish, turnip, lettuce, Swiss chard, favas, peas, runner beans, parsley, endive, escarole, and chicories.

 

Hot-Season Dry-Seeded Crops

All dry-seeded crops do best when there is little or no rainfall during seed maturation and harvest. This lessens the incidence of diseases of all kinds, especially seedborne diseases, and it lowers the threat of excessive rainfall shattering the seedheads that form with all dry-seeded crops. While summer highs do regularly exceed 92°F (33°C), a number of these crops must complete their early reproductive stages of pollination and anthesis to mature a high-germinating, high-quality seed crop, while early season daytime temperatures are between 80 and 92°F (27 and 33°C).

Crops that excel under these conditions: Garden beans, lima beans, edamame, carrot, onion, and sweet corn.

Hot-Season Wet-Seeded Crops

The wet-seeded moniker refers both to the fact that most of the fruit of these crops is wet but also to the method used to extract the fruit, which is extracted through a wet fermentation or a series of water rinses (see Seed Harvest for each individual crop). These crops are all heat lovers from the moment they are planted. They depend on warm spring temperatures that average above 65°F (18°C), to establish good early growth and need warm nighttime temperatures to realize a decent yield and mature a high-germinating, high-quality seed crop. Temperatures may routinely exceed 90°F (32°C) during flowering and early fruit and seed set,* and unlike the dry-seeded crops, some humidity is tolerated; in fact, the presence of humidity often is responsible for holding the heat into the evening and nighttime hours.

Crops that excel under these conditions: Cucumbers, melons, watermelons, summer squash, winter squash, bitter melon, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. (*The exception for this group is cucumber, which does prefer slightly cooler temperatures.)


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