Garden & Agriculture Archive


Books in the News: ‘The Tao of Vegetable Gardening’ & More!

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

What does Taoism have to do with gardening? That question is being answered in The Washington Post this week with a lengthy profile of Chelsea Green author Carol Deppe—gardener, plant breeder, seed expert, and geneticist based in Oregon—and her new book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening.

“Once I read The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, with its mix of sly humor, dirt gardening (how to use a hoe with the least effort), the art of non-doing (very Tao), how to cook greens and even freeze them (heretofore impossible in my kitchen), and passages from Deppe’s own translations of 2,500-year-old Chinese texts — well, I had to meet this woman,” writes reporter Anne Raver in her profile of Deppe, which appeared in the Post’s Home and Garden section.

The story is a mix of her visit to Deppe’s homestead back in February along with what she learned from that meeting and how she’s applying it to her Maryland homestead, and includes a photo slideshow of some of Deppe’s squash and corn, along with pictures of some of her greens that she grows.

Demand for Deppe’s insight and wisdom was not only evident in Raver’s article, but also in a review by Rachel Foster, garden writer for The Eugene Weekly, who wrote, “If you grow vegetables, or hope to, you need this book.” And, Library Journal recently listed The Tao of Vegetable Gardening as one of the bestselling gardening books nationwide. The top 20 list of books most ordered by librarians around the country also includes another Chelsea Green title, Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation by Tradd Cotter.

Other authors in the news recently:

Speaking of Tradd Cotter and his bestselling mushroom book, he was recently on WSPA-TV Your Carolina to talk about growing mushrooms, their medicinal uses, and his recent workshops at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, NC. Our favorite question by the host: “What happened to you growing up that made you this way?” 

The Wild Wisdom of Weeds author Katrina Blair was recently on Sierra Club Radio to talk about the 13 weeds found anywhere in the world that are edible, and can also be used for medicine and self-care.

Per Espen Stoknes—author of What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming—had a front-page feature on BoingBoing.net about the five psychological barriers to taking action on climate change.

Author Gianaclis Caldwell (The Small-Scale Dairy, The Small-Scale Cheese Business, and Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking) was on Cooking Up a Story recently to talk about what it takes to run a small-scale, off-the-grid goat farm and cheesemaking business.

And, finally, it’s the one-year anniversary this week of the death of author Michael Ruppert (Confronting Collapse) and writer Frank Kaminski penned this tribute to Ruppert’s life and enduring legacy.

Permaculture Month: Ask the Experts

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

This May, in honor of Permaculture Month, we are once again putting our pioneering permaculture authors at your disposal for a month-long Q&A session designed to help you become a better permaculturalist.

Over the years, the term permaculture has become increasingly popular among those who grow food on both large and small scales. However, the philosophy behind permaculture can be applied to all aspects of our daily lives and relationships. In essence, permaculture is a system of designing households and communities that are productive, sustaining, and largely self-reliant, and have minimal impact on the environment. Chelsea Green is proud to publish and distribute some of the most recognized, and award-winning names (both present and future) in permaculture, and we’re making several of them available to our readers to answer any and all permaculture-related questions.

Our Permaculture Experts

The participating authors are: Toby Hemenway, author of a perennial Chelsea Green bestseller Gaia’s Garden and a new book out this summer The Permaculture CityEric Toensmeier, author of the award-winning Perennial Vegetables and the latest Paradise Lot, and a host of new Chelsea Green authors including Josh Trought (The Community-Scale Permaculture Farm), founder of D Acres—an ecologically designed educational center in New Hampshire, Olivia Rathbone (The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center Cookbook), kitchen manager for one of the most successful and established permaculture sites in the word, Steve Gabriel (Farming the Woods), co-founder of the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute and forest farming extraordinaire, and Tao Orion (Beyond the War on Invasive Species), teacher of permaculture design at Oregon State University and active in ecosystem restoration. Also joining this group will be plant specialists Stephen Barstow (Around the World in 80 Plants) and Anni Kelsey (Edible Perennial Gardening) whose books we are distributing in our catalog.

Toby Hemenway Eric Toensmeier Josh Trought Olivia Rathbone
Steve Gabriel Tao Orion Stephen Barstow Anni Kelsey

Do you want to learn more about a specific design you have in mind or how to incorporate permaculture into your community? Or are you just getting started and want to know how to best evaluate your backyard or homestead? Whether you’re tackling edible garden spaces or acres of farm fields, our expert authors are prepared to answer your questions on permaculture design, edible landscaping, plant guilds, perennial plantings, as well as the economics and social impact of permaculture.

To submit your permaculture question, use the form below. Feel free to put your query to the attention of a specific author (if you have a question about something you’ve read or tried in their book), or ask a general question and we’ll direct it to the right author to respond. Keep checking back throughout the month as we’ll not only be posting answers, but excerpts and other information to celebrate permaculture month.

Fill out my online form.
There are tons of Wufoo features to help make your forms awesome.

Soil Blocks vs. Pots: Two Ways to Start Seedlings This Spring

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

With Spring having finally sprung (in many places), it brings the official start of planting season, and we have two experts with advice on how to get your seedlings off to the right start and ready for the garden.

When it comes to starting your first seedlings, are you a pothead or a blockhead? We’re talking about using pots versus soil blocks and no matter which you choose, our authors offer step-by-step methods and troubleshooting advice.

Master gardener Eliot Coleman is an advocate for soil blocks. In the excerpt below from The New Organic Grower, he outlines how soil blocks work, why they’re beneficial, the equipment you need to make them, and shares some helpful recipes to prepare your own block mix.

Josh Trought on the other hand, author of The Community-Scale Permaculture Farm, uses plastic trays and containers to grow his nursery starts. Unlike soil blocks that use ingredients like peat moss and coconut fibers to maintain their structure, Trought prefers the all-purpose potting soil mix he has developed that requires limited out-sourced amendments.

Read more about Josh Trought’s potting soil recipe here.

Related:
3 Steps to Start Your Plants Off Right
Transplanting Tree Seedlings Using Roof Gutters

*****

Soil Blocks

by Eliot Coleman

How Soil Blocks Work

A soil block is pretty much what the name implies—a block made out of lightly compressed potting soil. It serves as both the container and the growing medium for a transplant seedling. The blocks are composed entirely of potting soil and have no walls as such. Because they are pressed out by a form rather than filled into a form, air spaces provide the walls. Instead of the roots circling as they do upon reaching the wall of a container, they fill the block to the edges and wait. The air spaces between the blocks and the slight wall glazing caused by the block form keep the roots from growing from one block to another. The edge roots remain poised for rapid outward growth. When transplanted to the field, the seedling quickly becomes established. If the plants are kept too long in the blocks, however, the roots do extend into neighboring blocks, so the plants should be transplanted before this happens.

Despite being no more than a cube of growing medium, a soil block is not fragile. When first made, it is bound together by the fibrous nature of the moist ingredients. Once seeded, the roots of the young plant quickly fill the block and ensure its stability even when handled roughly. Soil blocks are the answer for a farm-produced seedling system that costs no more than the “soil” of which it is composed.

Advantages

The best thing about the soil-block system is that everything that can be done in small pots, “paks,” trays, or plugs can be done in blocks without the expense and bother of a container. Blocks can be made to accommodate any need. The block may have a small depression on the top in which a seed is planted, but blocks can also be made with a deep center hole in which to root cuttings. They can also be made with a large hole in which to transplant seedlings. Or they can be made with a hole precisely the size of a smaller block, so seedlings started in a germination chamber in small blocks can be quickly transplanted onto larger blocks.

Blocks provide the modular advantages of plug trays without the problems and expense of a plug system. Blocks free the grower from the mountains of plastic containers that have become so ubiquitous of late in horticultural operations. European growers sell bedding plants in blocks to customers, who transport them in their own containers. There is no plastic pot expense to the grower, the customer, or the environment. In short, soil blocks constitute the best system I have yet found for growing seedlings.

The Soil-Block Maker

The key to this system is the tool for making soil blocks—the soil-block maker or “blocker.” Basically, it is an ejection mold that forms self-contained cubes out of a growing medium. Both hand and machine models are available. For small-scale production, hand-operated models are perfectly adequate. Motorized block-making machines have a capacity of over 10,000 blocks per hour. But they are way overscaled for a 5-acre vegetable farm.

There are two features to understand about the blocker in order to appreciate the versatility of soil blocks: the size of the block form and the size and shape of the center pin.

The Form

Forms are available to make ¾-inch blocks (the mini-blocker), 1½-inch blocks, 2-inch blocks, 3-inch blocks, and 4-inch blocks (the maxi-blocker). The block shape is cubic rather than tapered. Horticultural researchers have found a cubic shape to be superior to the tapered-plug shape for the root growth of seedlings.

Two factors influence choice of block size—the type of plant and the length of the intended growing period prior to transplanting. For example, a larger block would be used for early sowings or where planting outside is likely to be delayed. A smaller block would suffice for short-duration propagation in summer and fall. The mini-block is used only as a germination block for starting seedlings.

Obviously, the smaller the block, the less potting mix and greenhouse space is required (a 1½-inch block contains less than half the volume of a 2-inch block). But, in choosing between block sizes, the larger of the two is usually the safer choice. Of course, if a smaller size block is used, the plants can always be held for a shorter time. Or, as is common in European commercial blocking operations, the nutrient requirements of plants in blocks too small to maintain them can be supplemented with soluble nutrients. The need for such supplementary fertilization is an absolute requirement in plug-type systems, because each cell contains so much less soil than a block. The popular upside-down pyramid shape, for example, contains only one-third the soil volume of a cubic block of the same top dimension.

My preference is always for the larger block, first because I believe it is false economy to stint on the care of young plants. Their vigorous early growth is the foundation for later productivity. Second, I prefer not to rely on soluble feeding when the total nutrient package can be enclosed in the block from the start. All that is necessary when using the right size block and soil mix is to water the seedlings.

Another factor justifying any extra volume of growing medium is the addition of organic matter to the soil. If lettuce is grown in 2-inch blocks and set out at a spacing of 12 by 12 inches, the amount of organic material in the blocks is the equivalent of applying 5 tons of compost per acre! Since peat is more than twice as valuable as manure for increasing long-term organic matter in the soil, the blocks are actually worth double their weight in manure. Where succession crops are grown, the soil-improving material added from transplanting alone can be substantial.

The Pin

The pin is the object mounted in the center of the top press-form plate. The standard seed pin is a small button that makes an indentation for the seed in the top of the soil block. This pin is suitable for crops with seeds the size of lettuce, cabbage, onion, or tomato. Other pin types are dowel- or cube-shaped. I use the cubic pin for melon, squash, corn, peas, beans, and any other seeds of those dimensions. A long dowel pin is used to make a deeper hole into which cuttings can be inserted. Cubic pins are also used so a seedling in a smaller block can be potted on to a larger block; the pin makes a cubic hole in the top of the block into which the smaller block is placed. The different types of pins are easily interchangeable.

Blocking Systems

The ¾-inch block made with the mini-blocker is used for starting seeds. With this small block, enormous quantities of modular seedlings can be germinated on a heating pad or in a germination chamber. This is especially useful for seeds that take a long time to germinate, because a minimum of space is used in the process.

Mini-blocks are effective because they can be handled as soon as you want to pot on the seedlings. The oft-repeated admonition to wait until the first true leaves appear before transplanting is wrong. Specific investigations by W.J.C. Lawrence, one of the early potting-soil researchers, have shown that the sooner young seedlings are potted on, the better is their eventual growth.

The 1½-inch block is used for short-duration transplants of standard crops (lettuce, brassicas) and as the seed block for cucumbers, melons, and artichokes by using the large seed pin. When fitted with a long dowel pin it makes an excellent block for rooting cuttings.

The 2-inch block is the standard for longer-duration transplants. When fitted with the ¾-inch cubic pin, it is used for germinating bean, pea, corn, or squash seeds and for the initial potting on of crops started in mini-blocks.

The 3-inch block fitted with a ¾-inch cubic pin offers the option to germinate many different field crops (squash, corn, cucumber, melon) when greenhouse space is not critical. It is also an ideal size for potting on asparagus seedlings started in mini-blocks.

The 4-inch block fitted with a 1½- or 2-inch cubic pin is the final home of artichoke, eggplant, pepper, and tomato seedlings. Because of its cubic shape, it has the same soil volume as a 6-inch pot and can grow exceptional plants of these crops to their five- to eight-week field transplant age.

Other Pin Options

In addition to the pins supplied with the blocker, the grower can make a pin of any desired size or shape. Most hard materials (wood, metal, or plastic) are suitable, as long as the pins have a smooth surface. Plug trays can be used as molds and filled with quick-hardening water putty to make many different sizes of pins that allow the integration of the plug and block systems.

Blocking Mixes

When transplants are grown, whether in blocks or pots, their rooting area is limited. Therefore the soil in which they grow must be specially formulated to compensate for these restricted conditions. For soil blocks, this special growing medium is a blocking mix. The composition of a blocking mix differs from an ordinary potting soil because of the unique requirements of block-making. A blocking mix needs an extra fibrous material to withstand being watered to a paste consistency and then formed into blocks. Unmodified garden soil treated this way would become hard and impenetrable. A blocking mix also needs good water-holding ability, because the blocks are not enclosed by a nonporous container. The bulk ingredients for blocking mixes are peat, sand, soil, and compost. Store-bought mixes can also work, but most will contain chemical additives not allowed by many organic certification programs. If you can find a commercial peat-pearlite mix with no additives, you can supplement it with the soil, compost, and extra ingredients described below.

In the past few years commercial, preformulated organic mixes with reasonably goof growth potential have begun to appear on the market. However, shipping costs can be expensive if you live far away from the supplier. To be honest, I have yet to find any of these products that will grow as nice seedlings as my own housemade mixes.

Peat

Peat is a partly decayed, moisture-absorbing plant residue found in bogs and swamps. It provides fiber and extra organic matter in a mix. All peats are not created equal, however, and quality can vary greatly. I recommend using the premium grade. Poor-quality peat contains a lot of sticks and is very dusty. The better-quality peats have more fiber and structure. Keep asking and searching your local garden suppliers until you can find good-quality peat moss. Very often a large greenhouse operation that makes its own mix will have access to a good product. The peat gives “body” to a block.

Sand

Sand or some similar granular substance is useful to “open up” the mix and provide more air porosity. A coarse sand with particles having a 1/8 to 1/16 inch diameter is the most effective. I prefer not to use vermiculite, as many commercial mixes do, because it is too light and tends to be crushed in the block-making process. If I want a lighter-weight mix I replace the sand with coarse perlite. Whatever the coarse product involved, adequate aeration is key to successful plant growth in any medium.

Compost and Soil

Although most modern mediums no longer include any real soil, I have found both soil and compost to be important for plant growth in a mix. Together they replace the “loam” of the successful old-time potting mixtures. In combination with the other ingredients, they provide stable, sustained-release nutrition to the plants. I suspect the most valuable contribution of the soil may be to moderate any excess nutrients in the compost, thus giving more consistent results. Whatever the reason, with soil and compost included there is no need for supplemental feeding.

Compost is the most important ingredient. It is best taken from two-year-old heaps that are fine in texture and well decomposed. The compost heap must be carefully prepared for future use in potting soil. I use no animal manure in the potting-mix compost. I construct the heap with 2- to 6-inch layer of mixed garden waste (e.g. outer leaves, pea vines, weeds) covered with a sprinkling of topsoil and 2 to 3 inches of straw sprinkled with montmorillionite clay. The sequence is repeated until the heap is complete. The heap should be turned once the temperature rises and begins to decline so as to stimulate further decomposition.

There are no worms involved in our composting except those naturally present, which is usually a considerable number. (I have purchased commercial worm composts [castings] as a trial ingredient, and they did make an adequate substitute for our compost.) Both during the breakdown and afterwards the heap should be covered with a landscape fabric. I strongly suggest letting the compost sit for an additional year (so that it is one and a half to two years old before use); the resulting compost is well worth the trouble. The better the compost ingredient, the better the growth of the plants will be. The exceptional quality of the seedlings grown in this mix is reason enough to take special care when making a compost. Compost for blocking mixes must be stockpiled the fall before and stored where it won’t freeze. Its value as a mix ingredient seems to be enhanced by mellowing in storage over the winter.

Soil refers to a fertile garden soil that is also stockpiled ahead of time. I collect it in the fall from land off which onions have just been harvested. I have found that seedlings (onions included) seem to grow best when the soil in the blocking mix has grown onions. I suspect there is some biological effect at work here, since crop-rotation studies have found onion (and leeks) to be highly beneficial preceding crops in a vegetable rotation. The soil and compost should be sifted through a ½-inch mesh screen to remove sticks, stones, and lumps. The compost and peat for the extra-fine mix used either for mini-block or for the propagation of tiny flower seeds are sifted through a ¼-inch mesh.

Extra Ingredients

Lime, blood meal, colloidal phosphate, and greensand are added in smaller quantities.

Lime. Ground limestone is added to adjust the pH of the blocking mix. The quantity of lime is determined by the amount of peat, the most acidic ingredient. The pH of compost or garden soil should not need modification. My experience, as well as recent research results, has led me to aim for a growing medium pH between 6 and 6.5 for all the major transplant crops. Those growers using different peats in the mix may want to run a few pH tests to be certain. However, the quantity of lime given in the formula below works for the different peats that I have encountered.

Blood Meal. I find this to be the most consistently dependable slow-release source of nitrogen for growing mediums. English gardening books often refer to hoof-and-horn meal, which is similar. I have also used crab-shell meal with great success. Recent independent research confirms my experience and suggests that cottonseed meal and dried whey sludge also work well.

Colloidal Phosphate. A clay material associated with phosphate rock deposits and containing 22 percent P2O5. The finer the particles the better.

Greensand (Glauconite). Greensand contains some potassium but is used here principally as a broad-spectrum source of micronutrients. A dried seaweed product like kelp meal can serve the same purpose, but I have achieved more consistent results with greensand.

The last three supplementary ingredients—blood meal, colloidal phosphate and greensand—when mixed together in equal parts are referred to as the “base fertilizer.”

Blocking Mix Recipe

A standard 10-quart bucket is the unit of measurement for the bulk ingredients. A standard cup measure is used for the supplementary ingredients. This recipe makes approximately 2 bushels of mix. Follow the steps in the order given.

3 buckets brown peat
½ cup lime. Mix.
2 buckets coarse sand or perlite
3 cups base fertilizer. Mix.
1 bucket soil
2 buckets compost

Mix all ingredients together thoroughly.

The lime is combined with the peat because that is the most acidic ingredient. Then the sand or perlite is added. The base fertilizer is mixed in next. By incorporating the dry supplemental ingredients with the peat in this manner, they will be distributed as uniformly as possible throughout the medium. Next add the soil and compost, and mix completely a final time.

Mini-Block Recipe

A different blend is used for germinating seeds in mini-blocks. Seeds germinate better in a “low-octant” mix, without any blood meal added. The peat and compost are finely screened through a ¼ inch mesh before adding them to the mix.

4 gallons brown peat
1 cup colloidal phosphate
1 cup greensand (If greensand is unavailable,
leave it out. Do not substitute a dried seaweed
product in this mix.)
1 gallon compost (well decomposed)

New Cookbook Offers Hundreds of Garden-to-Plate Recipes

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

Are you a gardener interested in finding new ways to cook with your vegetables or a farmers’ market shopper looking to expand your repertoire? Maybe you are a home cook who wants to prepare healthy meals for your family and friends or a professional chef looking for inspired recipes using wild edibles? Or are you a member of a community-based organization who cooks for crowds on a regular basis?

If you nodded your head to any of these questions, then The Occidental Arts & Ecology Center Cookbook is for you.

This unique cookbook is a beautifully illustrated collection of 200 inspired vegetarian recipes using fresh-from-the-garden seasonal ingredients from the OAEC, a renowned farm, educational retreat center, eco-thinktank and home of the Mother Garden—one of California’s first certified organic farms.

You’ll learn how to incorporate a diverse array of ingredients including weeds, flowers, herbs, nuts, fruits, mushrooms, and other forages, into your family’s everyday meals. The recipes also provide the quantities and measurements necessary to cook for a crowd—making each dish perfect to cook at home, or to share at parties, potlucks, and community events.

The OAEC has a passionate ethos about eating seasonally, and their book shows readers how to cook based on what is available in the garden at any given time of the year. Nothing illustrates this concept better than their signature dish, the Biodiversity Salad Mix, which frequently features more than 60 varieties of greens and wild edibles.

Acclaimed chef and author Alice Waters writes in her foreword, “It is a testament to the remarkable biodiversity of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center that something as ostensibly simple as a green salad can be such a revelation. But a revelation it is.” Pretty impressive for a bowl of greens.

Most likely you don’t have the resources to incorporate 60 ingredients into a salad, but lead author Olivia Rathbone encourages us to experiment with the biodiversity available in our own regions.

“We are not seeking out rare and endangered food crops of the world in order to ‘discover’ and profit from the next exotic ingredient to be marketed and consumed by the industrial food system,” writes Rathbone in her introduction. “Through trial-and-error research, we are taking full advantage of our regional growing conditions to find what works, and we encourage you to do the same kind of experimentation in your own backyard.”

And, for those less adventurous eaters, fear not, a reviewer from Booklist points out that many of the recipes “demonstrate simple techniques that work with many different vegetables.”

In The OAEC Cookbook you’ll find seasonal menus that offer a wide range of dishes such as: Carrot and Chamomile Soup and Pepita-Encrusted Squash Blossoms Stuffed with Goat Cheese and Mint. There are a variety of delicious salad dressing recipes, sauces, and pestos for garden-fresh greens. There are comfort foods like pots of savory Biodiversity Beans and Winter Sourdough Pizza and crowd pleasing desserts like Fresh Fruit Fools and Cardamom-Rose-Plum Bars.

Is your mouth watering yet? Check out the sample recipes below and start planning your next dinner party. Can we come?

Sample Recipes from The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center Cookbook

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


The Tao of Vegetable Gardening
Retail: $24.95
Sale: $17.47
Growing Hybrid Hazelnuts
Retail: $39.95
Sale: $27.97
Integrated Forest Gardening
Retail: $45.00
Sale: $31.50
Edible Forest Gardens (2 volume set)
Retail: $150.00
Sale: $105.00
The Community-Scale Permaculture Farm
Retail: $40.00
Sale: $28.00
The Nourishing Homestead
Retail: $29.95
Sale: $20.97
Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation
Retail: $39.95
Sale: $27.97
The Holistic Orchard
Retail: $39.95
Sale: $27.97
The Resilient Farm and Homestead
Retail: $40.00
Sale: $28.00
Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist
Retail: $24.95
Sale: $17.47
The Small-Scale Poultry Flock
Retail: $39.95
Sale: $27.97
The Resilient Gardener
Retail: $29.95
Sale: $20.97


How to Plan the Best Garden Ever
How to Plan the Best Garden Ever
Share Like this on Facebook
The Seed Series: 3 Steps to Start Your Plants Off Right
The Seed Series: 3 Steps to Start Your Plants Off Right
Share Like this on Facebook

What is a Plant Guild?
What is a Plant Guild?
Share Like this on Facebook
Eliot Coleman’s Guide to Great Compost
Eliot Coleman’s Guide to Great Compost
Share Like this on Facebook

The Ultimate Raised Bed: How To Make An Herb Spiral
The Ultimate Raised Bed: How To Make An Herb Spiral
Share Like this on Facebook
Garden Planning: 48 of the Most Promising Veggies
Garden Planning: 48 of the Most Promising Veggies
Share Like this on Facebook

The Benefits of Perennial Vegetables
The Benefits of Perennial Vegetables
Share Like this on Facebook
Turn Barren Soil into Black Gold: 9 Simple Steps to Sheet Mulching
Turn Barren Soil into Black Gold: 9 Simple Steps to Sheet Mulching
Share Like this on Facebook

~ ~ New Releases and Coming Soon! ~ ~

The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center Cookbook

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

Discount codes do not combine with other offers—our books
already on sale for example. Free shipping for orders $100 or
more is applied after the discount is applied. (U.S. Orders Only)

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
Retail: $39.95
Sale: $27.97
Edible Forest Gardens Vol. I
Retail: $75.00
Sale: $52.50
The Grafter's Handbook
Retail: $40.00
Sale: $28.00
The Holistic Orchard
Retail: $39.95
Sale: $27.97
Perennial Vegetables
Retail: $35.00
Sale: $24.50
An Unlikely Vineyard
Retail: $35.00
Sale: $24.50
The Resilient Farm and Homestead
Retail: $40.00
Sale: $28.00
Edible Perennial Gardening
Retail: $22.95
Sale: $16.07
Around The World in 80 Plants
Retail: $29.95
Sale: $20.97
Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist
Retail: $24.95
Sale: $17.47
Seed to Seed
Retail: $24.95
Sale: $17.47
The Resilient Gardener
Retail: $29.95
Sale: $20.97

View All Books on Sale


 

Low Maintenance Perennials for Your Garden
Low Maintenance Perennials for Your Garden
Share Like this on Facebook Pin it! Tweet it!
Food from the Forest
Food from the Forest: Fruits, Nuts, and More
Share Like this on Facebook Pin it! Tweet it!

Harvesting Garlic
Harvesting Garlic
Share Like this on Facebook Pin it! Tweet it!
How to Graft the Perfect Fruit Tree: Five Grafting Techniques
How to Graft the Perfect Tree
Share Like this on Facebook Pin it! Tweet it!

6 Reasons Why You Need to Plant Perennials…Like Now
6 Reasons Why Perennials are the Best Bang for Your Buck
Share Like this on Facebook Pin it! Tweet it!
Four Perennial Vegetables Perfect for Shady Spots
Four Perennial Vegetables Perfect for Shady Spots
Share Like this on Facebook Pin it! Tweet it!

Permaculture Q&A: Michael Judd’s Blueberry Soil Mix
Michael Judd’s Blueberry Soil Mix
Share Like this on Facebook Pin it! Tweet it!
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
Share Like this on Facebook Pin it! Tweet it!

View All Books on Sale

~ ~ Need More? Don’t Miss our New Releases   ~ ~

Growing Hybrid Hazelnuts

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

Discount codes do not combine with other offers—our books
already on sale for example. Free shipping for orders $100 or
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.

30% Off Gardening Books
Until March 31st

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.

P.S. Need a suggestion? We’re here to help. Email us at [email protected]


Discount codes do not combine with other offers—our books
already on sale for example. Free shipping for orders $100 or
more is applied after the discount is applied. (U.S. Orders Only)

How to Plan the Best Garden Ever
How to Plan the Best Garden Ever
Share Like this on Facebook
Garden Planning: 48 of the most Promising Veggies
Garden Planning: 48 of the Most Promising Veggies
Share Like this on Facebook

Build an Herb Spiral: The Ultimate Raised Bed
Build an Herb Spiral: The Ultimate Raised Bed
Share Like this on Facebook
3 Steps to Start Your Plants off Right
3 Steps to Start Your Plants off Right
Share Like this on Facebook

Fertile Soil for an Abundant Garden
Fertile Soil for an Abundant Garden
Share Like this on Facebook
The Eat-All Greens Garden
The Eat-All Greens Garden
Share Like this on Facebook

What is a Plant Guild
Permaculture 101: What is a Plant Guild
Share Like this on Facebook
Choosing the Right Seed Crop
Choosing the Right Seed Crop
Share Like this on Facebook

 

~ ~ Garden Books: 30% Off  ~ ~
The Tao of Vegetable Gardening
Retail: $24.95
Sale: $17.47
Integrated Forest Gardening
Retail: $45.00
Sale: $31.50
The Organic Seed Grower
Retail: $49.95
Sale: $34.97
The Four-Season Harvest
Retail: $24.95
Sale: $17.47
Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist
Retail: $24.95
Sale: $17.47
The New Organic Grower
Retail: $24.95
Sale: $17.47
The Resilient Gardener
Retail: $29.95
Sale: $20.97
Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation
Retail: $39.95
Sale: $27.97
Gaia's Garden
Retail: $29.95
Sale: $20.97
Farming the Woods
Retail: $39.95
Sale: $27.97
The Organic Grain Grower
Retail: $45.00
Sale: $31.50
Paradise Lot
Retail: $19.95
Sale: $13.97

~ ~ Need More? Don’t Miss our New Releases   ~ ~

The Nourishing Homestead

The Nourishing Homestead The Social Profit Handbook A Man Apart

Discount codes do not combine with other offers—our books
already on sale for example. Free shipping for orders $100 or
more is applied after the discount is applied. (U.S. Orders Only)

Follow us
Get every new post delivered to your inbox
Join millions of other followers
Powered By WPFruits.com