Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter!

Easter is a wonderful time to be with family, to ponder on new life, renewal, and new growth. With the nice Spring weather in areas warmer than we live, there are strawberries growing and being harvested. We have only a few strawberry plants and they didn't produce very well last year, so we are left to purchase them from someone else's bounty. After seeing this strawberry pie made on television, I couldn't help but make two of them for Easter dinner with the family. We used a frozen pie crust, so it wasn't as good as it could have been, but it was sure tasty!

I found that the recipe was quite accurate with one exception: the cooking time to cook the frozen berries was actually closer to an hour. It may have been because we were making two pies at once or because our berries may have had more water or juice in them that needed to cook down.Over all, a very good pie that I would probably make again as long as I had enough time to cook the berries. (Next time, I'll enlist the aid of one of my able-bodied teenagers to stir the pot while it is cooking.)With luck, we'll have more strawberry plants of our own to harvest enough berries for more pies!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Soil test in garden box

My wife found a soil test kit similar to the one shown at the right. She wanted to see if all of the amendments which we have put into our garden box is at the right levels. We have added quite a few things, so we felt that it should be doing fairly well across the board. We knew that our soil is really alkaline, so that is one of the first things that we looked at. Here are our findings:
  1. pH: Adding a lot of organic matter in a raised bed is going to mean that you are avoiding many of the problem in the natural soil. In our case, the test showed that the pH is essentially neutral, unlike most of the surrounding soil. This was a good validation!
  2. Nitrogen: It was surprising that the Nitrogen levels of this garden box were extremely low. This is after adding six bags of manure and some blood meal, which is high in Nitrogen. The only thing that I can think of is that there is probably a lot of high-Carbon organic matter mixed into the soil that hasn't decomposed completely. This will tie up much of the available Nitrogen. I was hoping that this wouldn't be the case, but it looks like it is a problem. I suppose that I could top-dress the soil with more aged manure, since we have already planted a lot of peas and lettuce (which hasn't sprouted, by the way) or we could call those seeds a loss and add a bunch more fertilizer and till it in. (We'll have to decide.)
  3. Phosphorus: This test showed that the soil sample was moderately high in Phosphorus. With all of the amendments this was expected. No need for further amendments here.
  4. Potassium (Potash): This test showed that the soil sample was high in Potassium.
Once we overcome the problem with the Nitrogen, all of the other tests showed that we have good levels in the other measurable levels. The Nitrogen problem may even be the cause of the seeds not sprouting. (It is nice to have some reason behind failures, even if not all of the evidence is known.)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Chicks moved into modified garden box

At the end of February, we purchased a variety of chicks from our local farm supply store. They have been in our garage in a children's wading pool with a heat lamp hanging from the ceiling and plastic bird netting to keep them from flying out. With about twenty birds, this has been a decent size to keep them until they outgrew that space. Lately, they have started getting spooked and flying around their confined space when the kids make too much noise or when it is feeding time. Now that the worst of the cold weather seems to have past, it was time to put them outside with the other animals.

The chicks are large enough with mature feathers to handle the extremes in temperature at night and during the day, but I don't think that they are ready to be mixed with the existing flock. Introducing new chickens can always be a challenge with the new ones always getting picked on, even if they outnumber the older birds. Here is what I did to prepare an area near the existing flock but to provide protection from them:
  1. Board up the access from the chicken run to the chicken coop where the mature hens are laying eggs. The coop has an access door to the outside, so they don't really need to be in the run except for protection.
  2. Build a temporary fence out of deer netting and T-posts to keep the birds in and hopefully to prevent wandering predators from threatening the chickens. We have had threats with neighborhood dogs, raccoons, and a family of foxes. Our Great Pyrenees has done his part to scare off many of the threats. Even with the help from our dog, we still lost a few chickens that were roosting outside the protected chicken run over the past few months. (I think that it was from foxes, based on similar issues with neighbors with chicken problems.)
  3. The chicken run is really a long garden box enclosed with hoops of electrical conduit and poultry netting. The mature chickens have been protected in this area the whole winter, accumulating layers of straw, wood shavings, kitchen food scraps, and their own manure. After a long winter without being turned, the lower layers were pretty compacted and starting to stink. I didn't want to put the new chicks into this toxic area so I cleaned it up by using a rototiller to mix it all up so that it can decompose more effectively. This material fluffed up to about eighteen inches worth of partially composted bedding.
  4. Finally, I topped the garden box with a couple inches of fresh straw. The chicks are bound to scratch down to where the old composting bedding is, but I'm hoping that it is composting well enough to not be a problem of introducing bacteria levels that the new birds can't adapt to.
The older birds seemed very intrigued with the new chicks peeping from the chicken run. Several of them stood near where they could watch them while the chicks mainly huddled all bunched up in the corner. Once they get used to each other in a week or so, I'll open the outside access and let the chicks out to mingle with the older birds.

Later this summer I plan to build a new chicken run for the birds to use. This will be the third garden box, the first being planted as a garden this year. In order for the current chicken run (second garden box) to be able to be used for planting vegetables next year, I'll want to add some additional soil amendments, mix it in, and let it compost in place over the winter without additional chicken manure. (Right now, it would be too "hot" for plants) Ideally it would sit for a whole year, but hopefully six months will be good enough as long as I mix it every now and then.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Update on garden box greehouse

We have had a few snow/wind storms over the past three weeks since we put together the garden box with our custom greenhouse cover (see previous post). Unfortunately, the duct tape isn't sticking like you would think. It starts to come off and then the adhesive must get wet or dusty and then it won't stick any more. Looking at some different greenhouse suppliers, it looks like the repair tape is something more like clear packing tape, perhaps being a little thicker than standard packing tape. I'm going to try replacing the duct tape with packing tape, but even with packing tape, we'll have to wipe off the plastic to make sure that it has a clean surface to adhere to. Otherwise it will have a similar problem of getting the adhesive all gummed up with dust and dirt.

Hopefully this last snow storm is the last one of the season. We have one rain storm forecasted this week, but other than this we should have pleasant weather. Sounds like it is time to get a big load of composted steer manure!