My posts have been a bit sparse this week, but I had been intending for quite some time now, to do a post showing just what I’ve been up to. We have been doing small scale food production for several months now, having picked back up after moving out of our apartment. Things have begun to pick up speed the last two weeks, and this week I got a bit busy. This post may make master gardeners cringe (if it does I’d love feed back in the comments section) as I have much more experience with small scale livestock production than gardening. I do hope, however, that for others who may not have much experience producing their own food that this post will inspire you to try new things. Explanations will be below each set of pictures.
We are very fortunate this year to have had access to a greenhouse that was already attached to the house. As you can see it’s a simple design and takes full advantage of the existing wall of the house. The wall it sits against actually backs up to the basement which further increases the temperature stability of the greenhouse. On the coldest nights we had this year (low 20’s Fahrenheit) I have been able to keep the temp at a cool but stable 45 degrees just by leaving the lights on. This has allowed us to get a head start with spring planting as many of the plants we already have growing would normally just be going in the ground without the greenhouse. Due to our mild winters, I am excitedly hopeful that we will be able to produce cold hardy plants year round.
Another advantage of having a greenhouse is the workspace it provides. I can start plants on the work table, pot them, etc. without worrying about dirtying up the floor. Starting plants indoors in the house can be a bit messy. To the right is the plant “nursery” I created to get an early start on plants like peppers and tomatoes that have a higher germination temperature. I scavenged a lamp the shade broke off of, and old vent hood, and a rubbermaid box and based the design on chicken brooders I’ve made in the past. With an internal temp averaging 80 degrees or so it has worked great for growing plants fast (sometimes faster than I’ve known what to do with them) and by lowering the light I could also raise chicks in it if I decide to raise broilers.
Now that the weather has finally warmed up all the plants are enjoying the sunshine on the deck behind the greenhouse, another big perk though is that end of next week when bad weather is expected I’ll move the young plants inside so the wind doesn’t rough them up to much.
A young tomato plant (left), bean plants waiting to be trellised (right). Of note, some of you may be concerned about my direct application of manure. The manure in question is rabbit manure which has a pretty even carbon-nitrogen balance, for this reason it won’t “burn” the plants like most manures will and can be applied directly without composting. I still prefer to mix in a little bedding to be safe. However, as I recently discovered, you should be careful not get any rabbit urine on your plants or the ammonia will kill them. That goes for worm beds to.
Okra plants (left), a strawberry plant in a hanging basket (right)
Kale plants in cast iron pots (left), I am hoping to move these inside over the summer and grow leafy greens year round. Alabama has borderline subtropical temperatures which means summer can be harder on plants than winter.
I am experimenting with growing blackberries in pots (right, large, round brown pots). I couldn’t find much info on pot size but there were numerous gardeners saying they did this successfully. I’m guessing those pots are around 5 gallons. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Another experiment this year has been with fig trees. You can see our 2 fig trees in the top left of the picture overlooking all the plants on the back deck. Since fig trees can be grown from cuttings, I saved several of the healthy cuttings when I pruned the trees this year and potted them. Obviously I will have to separate them out after they grow some, but as you can tell from the new green shoots they are alive and growing.
I’m also tinkering with the beans and peas. I couldn’t find much info on how to trellis potted beans or peas, but I knew from Square Foot Gardening that there space requirements are relatively low. I decide to try wrapping the wire cages around the pots, this way the they take up the same amount of space vertically as the pot, but by wrapping around the outside should get a lot of linear growth over the 4 foot vertical climb, in addition all the beans/peas should hang on the outside for ease of harvest.
My final big experiment is with sweet potatoes. The ground pots will be pretty conventional, grown up wigwam style pole trellises, the only experiment there is with that one small pot in the top right of the photo. However, I’ve read that they can also be grown down from hanging planters so I thought I’d try that too. I doubt that the smallest pot is big enough but I accidentally bought to many plants and had other plans for my last remaining larger planters. I suppose worst case scenario I’ll transplant it.
One of my favorite ways to have an “instant garden”, especially when moving somewhere new is to use one of these “top soil gardens”. The bags of topsoil are cut open at the top and have holes poked in them at the bottom for drainage. With a little compost these become instant raised beds. As you can see I’ve got collard greens, lettuce, and spinach coming up fairly well. Although I’m afraid they should have been watered more this week.
Rabbits are one of the most efficient ways to produce your own food in a small space. They are lots of fun to raise, but a bit hard on the heart to process. The two in the top right photo are Flopsy and Mopsy, the one by himself is Peter. These will be our new breeders. Coming soon they will be moved out of the greenhouse to the cooler and shadier back porch, as well as getting a “tractor” so that they can graze the lawn during the daytime (I won’t be leaving them out at night due to neighborhood dogs and cats). With my rabbits I use deep bedding, putting in several fresh handfuls a day to cover over their newest manure. This allows me to keep the cages more sanitary while going longer between bedding changes. Personally I’m not a huge fan of the hanging style, wire bottom cages.
You’ll also notice the rabbits are eating left over lettuce. We try compost as much as possible, particularly by running compost through the animals. Right now that means the rabbits eat our greens and the chickens get the left overs. Coming up soon I plan to have worm beds at which point I will double compost the rabbit food by giving their manure to the worms, they will also be able to eat several things (ex. crushed egg shells) that neither the chickens or rabbits can currently eat.
The chickens have been the biggest source of work for me this week, since we got them a couple of weeks ago they have been in the temporary home you see above. This has several major draw backs: First it takes about 30 minutes for me to move it, compare this to a better build tractor that can be moved in 2 minutes or so. You can see the problem with this in the top right photo. See how there is a small patch of green between the 2 eaten down patches? That patch was underneath the edge of the pen, the birds have literally gotten so hungry for fresh greens that they were sticking there heads out of the fence and eating down the 4 inches or so they could reach on the outside edge of the pen. This is a good indicator they aren’t being moved often enough.
My project this week, which hopefully will be a post for next weekend has been to build 2 new tractors for our birds so that they can be moved daily on to fresh forage. Our birds are already getting a fairly green diet which has contributed to what one friend called “the best eggs I’ve ever had”, but I would like them to get as much as possible.
We have 2 heritage breed birds, Road Island Reds and Black Australorpe’s who had just started laying when we bought them. I personally prefer to buy adult birds for laying hens, since it guarantees egg production (no birds die before they start laying) and cuts down on the cost of bringing them to laying age. We were fortunate to find birds that had been laying for just 2 weeks and had been free ranging, which has contributed to their being very aggressive foragers.
Hopefully by the end of this week I will be able to do a post with pictures of the new chicken tractors, in addition I am planning to return to my normal 3-4 posts a week this week.