garden and coop

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It’s been a mild fall here so far; hopefully I didn’t just jinx Michigan.  Only a couple of nights where it got below freezing, and generally pretty nice weather for late October.  Makes for happy lettuce.

With the changing seasons in mind, I putzed around in the girls’ coop.  Picked up a roll of faced insulation to put on their walls.  I’m not sure whether they’ll bother it.  So far, so good.  But if they start pecking it, I’ll need to get out the drywall tools.

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I also found a junk piece of plexiglass in the barn (full of pretty letters and arrows) that went up over the windows for keeping out those west winds when the temperatures dip to minus 20.  Not sure how much warmth it’ll keep in because there are roof vents directly to the outside, but from what I understand, drafts can be dangerous, but ventilation is necessary.

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My little blueberry bushes are still plodding along.  I’m pretty sure they’re not growing as well as they should be.  Our soil is naturally very alkaline, and I added natural sulfur to it last year, but the crude soil test I did still says it’s in the alkaline range.  I decided to mulch with naturally acidic spaghnum peat moss and see if that helps.  I you have any hints for blueberries, I’m all ears.

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a different harvest

When I was younger, back when I could remember things and bend my wrists without flinching, I believed that my favorite time of year was Fall.  All these years later it’s still my favorite season.  Except that now, so are Spring, Summer and Winter.

Fall smells better than any of them.  In your face, Spring.  Those dead leaves tended by the crisp air make the smell of Fall unbeatable…not even by Summer hay fields or Spring flowers.

But it’s two harvests that make me love Fall most; the leaves, and the wood.

I got a good start on my fall leaf collection today.  Fired up the mower and made piles of shredded leaves, mixed with some of those nice green grass clippings, for a little head start on the composting process.  I emptied out the chicken run’s shredded leaf floor (it only took a couple of weeks for the girls to really demolish them), and started filling next year’s Spring compost bins with that material.

Then it was time to refresh the girls’ run with un-shredded leaves and start filling my newly built leaf bin.

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The other harvest, free for the taking: trees that have died or blown down in the woods over the Spring and Summer.  It’s probably the most satisfying of all outdoor chores; materials are free, just add muscle.  There’s really nothing that can compare with just-finished rows of split wood stacked in the barn.  Hard to explain.  You can sense all the warmth that’s waiting to be released when it’s most needed.

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the chicken poop plan

I’m sure there are as many ways to handle coop and run litter as there are chicken keepers. But this is what I’m trying.

For a while I used pine shavings everywhere; in the coop, in the run and on the poop board under the roost. The method didn’t seem to fill my needs, and it ran through a lot of savings. Shavings also take a while to decompose in a compost pile.

A different solution that’s worked pretty well so far is a 3-pronged poop attack.

First, I’ve been using a product called Sweet PDZ on my poop board. It’s an all-natural, non-toxic product created for horse stalls, but it also does a great job of neutralizing ammonia smells and absorbing moisture in chicken coops. I just use a 1-2″ layer on the poop board and filter out the droppings with a cat litter scoop daily when I get the eggs.

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The droppings go into a 5-gallon bucket that I keep just outside the coop. Almost pure poop, and it’s easy to gauge amounts when adding to garden beds and mixing with browns in the compost piles. One bag of Sweet PDZ seems to last forever when used like this.

The second poop prong is the coop floor. Pine shavings seem to work best for me there as long as I keep them 5-6″ deep. Once the shavings are too pooped to pop any more, I shovel them out and move them to the outside run. This keeps the run from getting muddy and compacting (when combined with the third part of my poop party). It also continues to break down the shavings for the compost piles.

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In the run, mixed with the used coop shavings, I’ve dumped a thick layer of fall leaves. The chickens love to scratch through them looking for goodies. They do a better job of shredding and mixing than my mower, with less work and no gas (-oline). The leaves and shavings should help keep chicken toes warmer through the coming winter too.

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By spring, there’ll be a nice big pile of leaf/shavings/poop to goose up my compost piles.

yeah, pretty lame excuse

​Hello good friends, and my apologies for dropping off the face of the earth without a word. My thoughts are simple (as might be evident); I didn’t have anything interesting to say. If it wouldn’t interest me, I can’t expect it to interest someone else.

And then I kinda got sucked into the whole lazy thing.

The garden has wound down. Last night was our first real freeze. Frost on the windshields and brown pepper plants.

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I’m waiting for the rest of my free brown materials to fall from the sky. In the meantime, I fashioned a large leaf-collection bin, made from 20-some year old materials that were sitting in the barn waiting for their moment in the sun.

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The cold brings out the chainsaw. I use only deadfall trees from the property for firewood, and the scrub trees that die and fall are usually dry enough to use the same year. This year has been a little lean as far as deadwood. There was a nice big oak down, but that has to season till next year. It might just be a year for buying a little wood that some other fool cut up.

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I’m coming to the realization that cutting and splitting firewood in quantity is a younger man’s game. Somewhere along the way, I messed up my wrists and thumbs, and handling a chainsaw doesn’t suit me for long periods, nor does crawling around on the roof cleaning the chimney. But I’ll keep picking at it until I have to say uncle.

There’s not much activity in the garden. My fall cover crop mix is doing its job without complaint. After watching the deer happily grazing on last year’s crop, I decided to strategically place tomato cages to nip that kind of thing in the bud. So far so good.

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I planted garlic and shallots today in the space occupied by this year’s compost bins. And the lettuce plants that I sowed indoors in August are hitting their stride under a cloche.

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It’s good to be back in the saddle. But I reserve the right to be lazy at any time I choose.

red glut

The garden looks pretty naked now; just a giant zucchini plant that I really don’t need and some peppers that taunt me with impossibly immature fruits.

But what’s different for me this year is having tomato plants that are still kicking out in mid-September. Something about having a decent tomato crop makes all of the year’s other gardening mistakes recede into irrelevancy.

I really don’t want any more tomatoes. They’re coming out our rears and ears. But it’s so much fun just looking at them in September and hoping that they’re here because of something that I did.

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If I were to wish for a glut of anything it would be, in this order: 1. Tomatoes, 2. Sweet corn, and 3. Raspberries.

Two out of three, high fives all around.

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a little fall lettuce

About a month ago I got off my rear for a second and planted a few six-packs of lettuce seed indoors. It somehow always seems silly planting a few seeds indoors when the whole garden’s bursting at the seams.

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But now it doesn’t seem silly. The little seedlings would have had a rough go outside in the last month of dry, 90° temperatures. They should do fine now. The temperatures are gradually decreasing, and the grass-clippings-mulch should keep them happy. Later I’ll get out a little cloche, that should help them through some light frosts.

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From experience I know that you actually have to think ahead sometimes. The cloche full of salad crops will be situated where I won’t grow melons next year until I change my mind.

winding down

The end of summer isn’t a time, it’s a process. Plants die off slowly, leaving harvest to stretch out over a period of weeks.

Although I’ve pulled two tomato plants and have a couple more on their last legs, there are still three or four producing. We’ve canned two batches of salsa, some whole tomatoes, and made tomato sauce. Now the shelf space is all used up, and the freezer is getting difficult to navigate.

yet another weirdly big Amish Paste tomato to be used for next year's seed

Another weirdly big Amish Paste tomato to be used for next year’s seed

But I have trouble not putting produce to good use, so yesterday I made a final (?) batch of salsa for freezing, just for me, with plenty of hot peppers. Since the pantry wasn’t an option, I decided to freeze the salsa, first in ice cube trays, then putting the hot salsa cubes into freezer bags. Makes it simple to take out just the amount I need at supper time.

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I just hope there’s still room in there for ice cream.

With gardening winding down, it seemed like a good time to take care of another project that’s been on the to-do list; a couple of drying rods in my grow closet.

In the past, our drying produce has hung in the barn, which isn’t ideal. It’s damp in there, and I always feel like I’m luring rodents to a feast.

With a couple of lengths of PVC left over from the chicken tractor build and a couple of pieces of scrap wood, it was done.

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It’ll be easy to remove the rods if they get in the way, and there’s plenty of rack space for my needs. The only possible hitch might be the lack of air movement, but we’ll see.

paths and beds

There was a time when I would wait for all of my crops to be spent, till the garden and call it a season. Now it’s more of a piecemeal proposition.

With my garden’s size, I never have enough compost to fertilize the whole caboodle. Even starting with three bins full of waste materials, it cooks down by half or more.

I had enough compost to generously cover 4 1/2 beds, which are now a uniform 21′ x 3′. I tilled in the compost and then planted a winter cover crop mix in those beds. The rest of the beds will each get 7 to 8 gallons of fresh chicken manure before winter (I clean off the pop board every morning and store it in a covered 5 gallon bucket). Then they’ll be covered with shredded leaves.

In the piecemeal spirit, I’ve also started improving paths. It’s an uncomfortably big job to gather and spread wood chips on all of the paths at once, so I pick them off one at a time.

This year I had a big pile of willow chips from the ground-up stump of a huge willow tree that came down earlier. To keep weeds from getting a head start, I first laid down cardboard boxes or newspapers. These were actually from a stack of discarded voter guides that my wife picked up. The perfect place for politics…

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These chip paths just make it nicer to walk and kneel in the garden in the mornings and after rains.  Here’s a path that I’d completed earlier, with the winter cover crop doing its thing…

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decision

It’s interesting to watch a pond progress from infancy into pondhood. Ours was dug 13 years ago in sandy soil that had been leased out to neighboring farmers for growing corn and soybeans.

Every year we notice changes, from the arrival of frogs and turtles to the growth of willows, reeds and cattails. After watching for this long, it’s clear that the tendency is for nature to try to fill a pond up with life, much like soil left bare tends to eventually fill up with weeds and grasses.

So far I’ve been successful at lightly managing the cattails. They tend to spread quickly unless they receive some guidance.

But this year there’s been a sudden explosion of another species: ten-foot tall reeds called phragmites in the cattail sanctuary. Phragmites are an extremely invasive species that can quickly get out of control, smothering out native pond plant life and nuking creature habitats.

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phragmites aren’t actually bad looking…

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…but they are pond-hungry

So I made the tough (and very politically incorrect) decision to use a chemical control containing glyphosate, the newest environmental bogeyman.

In my decades of gardening I’ve never used any form of chemical in my vegetable gardens. It’s a badge of pride with me. So this was a tough but (in my view) necessary decision.

The only effective non-chemical control for phragmites is burning, and the pond is too dangerously close to the woods for that. Pulling them by hand only causes them to spread. It was the only option short of surrendering the pond and its associated life to a foreign invader.

The other, way more fun pond project was dragging the beach with the 4 wheeler. The best excuse ever for a grown man to do wheelies in the sand.

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