Start Raising Chickens Simply

When I started with chickens, I spent 5 months raising them before I got my first egg. Three of those months the chicks were in a brooder, in our house. For several weeks the brooder had to be heated. For the entire time, the brooder had to be cleaned daily to keep down unwanted aromas.

I learned a lot of things from that experience. The most important lesson was the fact that I never, ever want to raise chickens in my house, again. I am not the only chicken keeper who has these thoughts. That’s why you’ll find endless plans and ideas for making stand alone brooders to incorporate in your coop or use in outbuildings.

If you have never raised chickens before, I want to save you a lot of time and trouble with these three words of wisdom.

Buy laying hens!

The simplest way to start your flock is to look on Craigslist, or whatever farm classified ads you prefer, and find yourself hens that are already laying. Sexlinks, Rhode island reds, white-egg laying chickens, other hybrids or heritage breeds, whatever kind of laying hen you can find will make a great starting point — as long as they are healthy and already laying eggs.

Often the chickens you find on classifieds are layers in their 2nd or 3rd year of egg production. Their production has slowed down. Instead of 5-6 eggs a week, they lay 1-3. Their keepers want more eggs, but don’t have the heart to kill them. So they sell them cheap, hoping someone else just wants chickens for company. Sometimes you can find younger chickens offered for sale by people who realized they weren’t really chicken keepers. Occasionally, you can find people who just like to raise chicks and not keep the chickens.

Frankly, any of these chickens are fine because your goal with your first flock is not peak egg production. It’s to learn how to care for chickens, experiment with raising methods, and to keep them alive.

Nearly every chicken keeper I know lost chickens their first time through because they didn’t even know what they were supposed to worry about. Even if egg production is low with your first flock, you’ll still get manure which is one of the best fertility sources for your garden. Plus, this starter flock is your chance to gain experience through trial and error without going to great expense, or becoming inordinately attached to your first flock.

Benefits of a Second-Hand Flock

If you start by building a fancy coop and picking heritage breeds from a catalog, raising them from chicks, treating them like pets instead of livestock — you’re chances of being heart-broken by your first flock are very high. Trust me. Something is going to go wrong.

  • Your dog will sneak in when you feed the chickens and take 5 of them out in under 60 seconds.
  • You’ll forget to close the coop door one night and a raccoon will gut your most beautiful, favorite layer.
  • Or instead of a raccoon, a wide ranging weasel may come by and take out your entire flock because you were a little late closing the door.

I could go on. But I think you get the point. Until you raise chickens, you can’t anticipate the kind of things you need to be ready for. Many new chicken keepers end up feeling guilty and sad because they invested so much effort and care only to fail in devastating ways.

By starting with a second-hand flock, you can off-set some of that emotional anguish with the knowledge that you did your best to give unwanted animals a second chance. Also, more mature chickens have been around the block and aren’t as likely to make dumb mistakes. So, they tend to be a bit more durable than birds raised in a brooder by an inexperienced chicken keeper.

Buyers Guide

Hopefully I’ve persuaded you of the benefits of starting with a second hand flock. Now, here’s what to look for when you buy.

  • Ideally, aim for the youngest layers you can find and make sure they are in great health.
  • Don’t buy chickens that have poopy butts, have irrigated skin in their rear area, make you itch when you hold them, or are missing lots of head feathers. These chickens will require mite removal and health care before you move them to their new coop.
  • Squat down with the chickens and see if they come near you. They may not let you touch them. But, they’ll usually come close, out of curiosity, if they are healthy and well-adjusted.
  • Don’t buy chickens if they run up on you or peck you when you squat down. They usually can’t be broken of those bad habits and will make caring for the rest of your flock more difficult.

Trust your gut instincts on chicken buying. If the way the chickens are kept or their health condition makes you feel a bit queasy, don’t bring them home. In my experience, our stomachs often notice things that our minds choose to ignore. There’s a reason why “trust your gut” is an enduring expression!

Tips on Keeping Chickens

Obviously there’s a lot more to keeping chickens than just buying them. Before you bring home chickens, you need a secure space ready for them and a plan for how you’ll care for them. Then, later you’ll be experimenting, researching, learning, and making more permanent decisions about what works well in your environment.

The tips that follow are meant to help you get started. In future posts, I’ll get into more ideas about how to use and keep chickens as part of a homestead system. At the outset though, start with simple systems and focus on learning as much as you can about your flock, about yourself as a chicken keeper, and about how chickens interact with your environment.

Tip 1: No Right Way to Keep Chickens

No matter what anybody tells you, there is no single best way to keep chickens. They are adaptable, intelligent animals that are durable in some ways and can thrive in lots of different conditions. Every environment is different as well.

Try not to get too tied to particular ways of raising or using chickens early on. Be open to learning about all the different ways people raise chickens in your research. Then, later make the decisions that feel right to you, work well in your environment, and compliment your lifestyle.

Tip 2: Conditions and Care Needs Change

Also, we now live in a world with a rapidly changing world with wildly unpredictable weather threats and climate changes. Pests, pathogens, and diseases are proliferating and spreading in ways no one expected. New risks emerge constantly.

I got away with safely free-ranging chickens for 5 years until terrible flooding reduced the rat, mice, and rabbit populations on our landscape. Then, hawks took an interest in my chickens. Shortly after that, a fox family moved in. I had to completely re-think my chicken keeping practices based on those new predator concerns.

Even highly controlled industrial chicken care environments, fine-tuned with scientific precision, are susceptible to risks from our evolving conditions. Floods, diseases, feed problems, and more have made even supposedly invulnerable “engineered environments” danger zones for livestock.

It’s important to understand at the outset that chicken care is a moving target. You will never come up with the perfect plan for all time. There will always be tweaks and adjustments and even wholesale rethinking at times. Now, more than ever, you need to be flexible and responsive in your approach to chicken care.

Tip 3: Coop and Run Security is Key

Chickens need a secure space to spend their days and nights. Until you know your predator risks, you won’t want to let them out of their coop and run except under your close supervision.

So, you need to plan a large space to keep them secure. There are many different ways to go about this. They key is that you need to build them an effective refuge that keeps digging, aerial, and strong or cunning predators out.

– Hardware Cloth v. Chicken Wire

Generally, you want all openings less than an inch wide. So called “chicken wire” is the right size, yet it’s not durable enough for protection against strong predators. Hardware cloth is a better choice.

– Full Protection

Make sure your coop and run has complete overhead, underground, all around protection. Here are a few things I’ve learned about coop security.

  • Buried fencing can keep out diggers. Yet, it’s often easier to just tack hardware cloth over the whole floor or use a solid plywood floor for protection.
  • Self-locking latches and sliding bars keep out raccoons. Those crafty predators can open less complicated latches or pry up corners of light weight openings.
  • Ventilation is a must. But screens are easily clawed open by climbers. Instead use hardware cloth on your window openings.
  • Wood rots and swells. Nailed boards can be pried loose by stronger predators. Protect wood from moisture or use treated wood (e.g. stained/painted). Use screws rather than nails for more security.
  • Roofing materials should provide weather and predator protection. Plastic or dark colored roofs can make coops hot in summer. Tarps can be easily chewed through and lose durability quickly when exposed to the elements. Metal roofing tends to work best.

Tip 4: Try Temporary Coops

Your first time through, I suggest you make something durable yet temporary. For example, hoop coops made with cattle panels and hardware cloth can be cheaply and easily built. They also create a lot of space for small flock of chickens. You can stand up inside which makes cleaning and spending time with your chickens easy.

You can also easily re-purpose all the materials later when you are ready to build a formal coop and run. You can turn the hoop coop into a greenhouse by covering it with plastic sheeting. Or you can use those cattle panels to make curcurbit tunnels in your garden later.

There are a number of hoop plans out there to choose from. This will likely not be your final coop design, so if I were you, I’d go for the easiest design possible.

Here are two easy tutorials to consider.

http://wholeviewfarm.blogspot.com/2013/07/building-hoop-coop-how-to-construct.html

http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs/ASC/ASC189/ASC189.pdf

Hoop coops are not the only option out there. But unless you have carpentry skills and a lot of tools, they are a great beginner option. You can also buy second hand coops or find a local builder making low cost coops in some areas.

Tip 5: Pay Attention to Pet Peeves

I know you are going to read a lot of posts, magazines, and books before you bring home your first flock. Make sure to pay attention to all the nuanced little details chicken keepers share. Paying attention to pet peeves, in particular, can help you save time. Here are a few of mine.

– No “U” Nails

Personally, I am not a fan of U nails. Instead, I like to sandwich hardware cloth or wire fencing between two pieces of wood connected by screws. This makes taking it apart later much easier than having to rip out a bunch of U nails. It also saves on smashed fingers.

– Pass on Movable Coops

Movable coops, except those on trailers, only work on flat land. I’ve tried several drag and drop designs on our hilled landscape and they quickly warp and fall apart quickly.

Even on flat land though, the only chicken keepers I know who actually move their coop often enough for chicken health are farmers. They use tractors to tow them.

Instead of a movable coop, I recommend that you use deep bedding. Alternatively, use a shovel to scrape and then sweep up manure weekly to keep chickens from spending too much time on accumulated manure. Then you can also use that manure in your garden as fertilizer.

Tip 6: Start With What Works

For your first few months, start with the things that work universally.

  • Use pelleted layer feed before you try to make your own or start fermenting feed.
  • Use an $8 hanging chicken waterer cleaned and refilled every other day.
  • Don’t use supplements that may or may not be helpful to your chickens.
  • Put out oyster shells to ensure access to calcium.
  • Bring chickens your fresh kitchen scraps and anything from your garden to use to build rapport with your new flock.
  • Collect eggs at least once daily so you know they are fresh.
  • Let your chickens lay naturally without using electric lights to induce winter laying.
  • Store extra feed somewhere other than inside the coop so you don’t attract scavengers who might also eat your chickens (e.g. possums and raccoons).
  • Clean your coop at least weekly.
  • Spend time observing your chickens from a distance to learn more about them.

Tip 7: Experiment Carefully

Just like people, chickens need time to adapt to changes. When you are ready to start making your own feed mixes, fermenting your feed, using herbs for their health, offering probiotics, trialing Diatomaceous Earth (DE), give them yard access, use them in the garden, etc. – do it slowly.

For example, let chickens sample new foods. Watch their reactions and monitor their health. Only make full changes when you are certain your chickens will benefit from them.

If you give chickens access to your yard, keep an eye on them to make sure there are no unrecognized hazards. Start free-ranging them in the evenings so night will drive them back into the coop in case you have trouble rounding them back up.

Pay attention to what they eat and don’t eat from your yard or garden on their own. Then look up those plant properties to find out why chickens might favor them or avoid them. This will tell you a lot about whether your feed program is working.

Becoming a Chicken Keeper

Learning how to keep mature chickens safe and healthy is a great place to start your journey of becoming a chicken keeper. The real fun though comes with giving them purpose on your homestead.

Chickens actually enjoy being put to work scavenging their own food, controlling weeds, conditioning soil, and keeping you company when you work outside. Once you know how to care for them, then you can find meaningful ways to direct their natural abilities and integrate them into your homesteading life.

Then, later as you perpetuate your flock with new chickens you can make all those important decisions about whether to brood your own chicks or let a broody hen handle it. You can also try lots of breeds and narrow down your breed preferences.

Homesteading isn’t just about the activities that provide you greater resource self-sufficiency like eggs, meat, manure, and livestock labor. It’s also about thinking for yourself and deeply understanding all the aspects at play in the environment you inhabit.

Taking time to become a true chicken keeper, rather than just being someone who keeps chickens, takes more time up front. But doing so will make you much more skilled and help you effectively integrate long-term chickens into the life you are creating.

You may also decide chickens aren’t right for you. And if that’s the case, then by starting with a second-hand flock, you’ll sure be glad you aren’t stuck with an expensive coop and a sense of guilt over selling off those chicks you raised in your bathroom or basement.

The Power of a Well-Planned Potager

I did something that others might consider crazy on purpose. I ignored my Simplestead potager garden for 4 weeks during our hottest, driest period.

We’ve had less than an inch of rain in the last 4 weeks and most of it fell today just before I came outside to document the condition of the garden after my near total neglect. Our temperatures were also over 85 F for 23 of those 28 days of neglect.

I didn’t water.

I didn’t weed.

I didn’t stake or trellis anything.

I didn’t pick off insects or coddle any fungal prone plants.

I just harvested the things that would rot if I didn’t pick them. That included tons of carrots, beets, peppers, cantaloupes, tomatoes, beans, and more. That harvesting took me a grand total of about 15 minutes over the last 4 weeks.

This is not my normal gardening practice. I love gardening and spending time in my garden. So, it was actually hard for me to stay away. But, this is a test/proof of concept garden that I created for the purpose of writing this blog.

I neglected my potager garden — on purpose — to show you how resilient a well-planned, continuously planted, compost-driven garden could be.

Gardening is not a just a way to produce food. It’s a relationship with your environment. So, I don’t recommend that you practice total neglect of your garden as a habit. However, there are times when you can’t garden as much as you want to. Stuff comes up and you simply can’t get outside to do your routine maintenance and enjoy time in your garden. In other words, life happens.

If you put the time into planning, developing your soil, and choosing the right plants for your garden, and keep your garden constantly planted, then your well-planned potager can keep on without you for a while.

Yes – it may look a bit like a jungle with sprawling tomatoes, out of control melon vines, and a few pests (deer in my case) may visit and eat your bean or sweet potato vine leaves while you are away.

Still your garden grows on. Plus, it can be easily worked back into condition with an hour or two of care.

Most importantly, that density of planting from that jungle like atmosphere protects the soil and all the biological life encouraged with compost and compost tea when you do have time to invest in your garden.

Now that this experiment is over, I’ll be harvesting mass quantities of vegetables today. Despite the sprawl, there are ripe, ready to eat tomatoes hiding in those vines.

Although the beet greens are a bit sun-scalded and crispy, the roots are are plump and ready to eat. I’ll be freezing about 30 pounds of cantaloupe for our smoothies. A few that didn’t ripen fully will go to the chickens. I’ll also harvesting every pepper and bean I can find to encourage the plants to get back to production.

After that, I’ll do a couple hours of maintenance such as getting some light to my garlic chives which were nearly swallowed by the tomatoes. Generally though, I’ll just spend some quality time with my garden again.

There will be lots more potager-related posts to come. However, since it is now time to start super-powering your garden with poop, I’m going to switch gears for the next few posts and talk about raising chickens the Simplestead way.

Annatto, Achiote, or the Lipstick Tree

Bixa orellana

Is it a beautiful ornamental or a possible invasive pest? Where I live now, with many below freezing days of winter, this lovely tree has no chance of becoming invasive because it’s not cold hardy. So, I am going to rate it as a beautiful ornamental. In fact, I have to grow it in a pot that I can cart in and out of my greenhouse on a mover’s trolley as needed.

Until recently, it never even occurred to me to try to grow this beauty in my mountainous region of North Carolina. However, I have set upon a journey to grow as many spices as I can, understand their uses, and appreciate the cultures that first brought them to our attention.

The annatto tree and spice is a great place for me to start my journey because it is one of the few spices native to the Americas. No, it doesn’t come from the part of North America where I live. But it did grow like a native in the landscape of my childhood.

Stained Sidewalks

I first encountered this tree growing up in Southern California. My dad used to take me walking along the sidewalk-lined suburban streets of our Orange County neighborhood. The area we lived in was “well-established”. That’s a nice way of saying it had a lot of older homes that weren’t as eye catching as the McMansions beginning to pop up in tracts on all the empty lots nearby.

Personally, I loved where we lived though because every home had a variety of mature landscaping plants. There was lots of eucalyptus, lemons, oranges, avocados, olives, persimmons, figs, pomegranates, jacaranda, and more.

One house had a wall of annatto trees growing so thick across the front lawn, you had to try hard to see the house hiding behind. I suspect that was what the owner wanted since their home was on what had become a busy road as all the new shopping centers started to move in.

That area of the sidewalk seemed constantly stained red from the spiky seed pods that fell, cracked open, and then after a few rains, were ground in by the feet of pedestrians like me. A few times, I collected some seeds still intact. I remember trying to use them as my own homemade version of sidewalk chalk.

In a fit of recent nostalgia, I scoured the Falling Fruit site (a resource for urban and suburban food foragers) to see if anyone reported those edible seed pods still falling on the sidewalk of my youth. Unfortunately, no one has reported them.

It could be that my memories have outlived those trees which are only reputed to have a 20-25 year productive life. Or, perhaps, they grow on renewed by self-seeding. Maybe passerbys today still smash those seeds into sidewalk stain as I once did, never realizing the culinary value falling at their feet.

The Secret Ingredient

Despite the fact that I grew up on “ethnic foods” as a resident of Southern California and must have had more than my fair share of dishes seasoned with achiotte paste or the commerical version called sázon, I never connected that plant to its culinary applications until I became a cheese maker.

When I made my first cheddar at home, I was shocked to discover it had a pale whitish-yellow color and not the rich orange I had been expecting. A little research revealed that annatto was used a colorant to make cheddar appear orange.

After that I experimented a bit using the annatto seeds, also called achiote when used as a spice, as a colorant and to flavor rice and chicken dishes. In my experience, it isn’t particularly strong flavored on its own. Yet, it seems to somehow enhance the flavor of other things it also seems to make the fats in foods seem more supple and smooth and less oily.

Growing Your Knowledge of Annatto

In yet another phase of my appreciation and understanding of this sidewalk-staining, spice-emphasizing, cheese-colorant, I recently learned that those towering trees that turned a California lawn into an impenetrable forest, can also be kept compact and grown in containers.

As such, I now have a specimen growing in my greenhouse. In the not to distant future, since this plant is purported to grow quickly, I’ll know a lot more about how to use it and why it is so deserving of a place of honor in the home spice rack.

In the meantime, here are some articles I have found helpful in my quest to better understand this beautiful spice plant.

General Information

Growing It

Using It

Note: That beautiful feature image came by way of JoaoBOliver from Pixabay.

Thai Basil

Thai basil grows very similar to other basils. It does well in fertile, well-draining soils, and can tolerate some drought. It has been much slower to flower than the common Genovese basil and more resistant to bolting in hot, dry weather. This basil grows a bit slower than many other basils, but puts on a spectacular flower show and is worth the wait.

Taste and Smell

Thai basil is more pungent than other basils. It has a peppery, licorice-taste that is very pronounced. It is definitely a savory herb which is why it balances so nicely in sweet and sour dishes or things like curry with a sweet coconut milk base.

Thai basil has a strong, lingering black licorice or anise scent that becomes even stronger when dried. This is one of the best drying basils I grow in my garden.

Leaves

Thai basil has light green leaves with rose hued stems. The leaf color is a bit more lime or yellow-tending than than the shiny, brightness of the more common Genovese basil. The leaves are also more narrow and tend to be smaller and more angular in shape.

Thai basil leaves seem more prone to insect damage than is typical for the other kinds of basil I have experience growing. It also seems to be less of a nutrient scavenger than other kinds of basil and requires more care to avoid chlorosis (yellowing of the leaves).

Blooms

Thai basil has blooms that more closely resemble lilac flower clusters than the tall flower stakes that are more typical of most basil plant. They are incredibly beautiful in clusters. The flowers also hold up well when cut and are excellent in aromatic herb bouquets.

Growth Habit

This is one of the more compact and slower growing basil plants I have grown. It also doesn’t spread as wide even with regular pinching to encourage bushiness.

These plants seem to do best in direct sunlight. The interior leaves show a lot of yellowing if plants aren’t allowed enough room to grow.

Mature height in fertile soil ranges between about 2-3 feet, width is about 1 foot wide. I only grow this plant in fertile, vegetable garden soil because it seems more finicky than other basil plants.

Planting Details

  • Starts easily from seed. Can be direct planted or transplanted.
  • It does exceptionally well growing through hot weather even with minimal rain or watering and is slow to flower even under extended heat stress.
  • Needs warm temperatures to germinate. Seeds started in late May in North Carolina, in 80 degrees F germinated in 4-5 days. Germination rates seem lower than for most basils I have tried. So, I heavily over seed for this plant.
  • Water daily until plants are at least a few inches tall for faster growth rates.
  • Thai basil’s compact size and slower growth rates make it more weed prone in general. By starting more plants, closer together, then harvesting the thinnings, to use in cooking, you get more yield and have less weed competition at the outset.
  • This basil also seems to need regular fertilizing for peak health. Compost tea applied weekly to the roots intensifies the color and aroma of the leaves.

Persian Basil

Persian basil grows very similar to other basils. It does well in fertile, well-draining soils, and can tolerate some drought. It has been much slower to flower than the common Genovese basil and more resistant to bolting in hot, dry weather.

Taste and Smell

Persian basil is very mild in flavor. It can be used fresh in salads as whole or chopped leaves. It has a hint of licorice and mint as well as the savory, green flavor common to most basil. The leaves are a bit meatier than Italian-style basils.

There is a hint of cinnamon in the flower blossoms. The leaves smell more strongly of licorice than some other basils. Overall, though the aroma is mild like the flavor.

Leaves

Persian basil has green leaves with purple hued stems and veins. The leaf color is darker and more subdued than the shiny, brightness of the more common Genovese basil. The leaves are also more narrow and elongated in shape.

Blooms

Persian basil has purple flower stakes with white flower blooms. The stakes grow from the center of the leaves starting the size of a button and growing to 3-4 inches in length.

Growth Habit

The plants are about 1 foot wide with minimal pinching. However they can spread out a few feet if you continually pinch growing heads to encourage bushiness.

They also seem perfectly happy to grow in large , overcrowded groups, and do an excellent job at stifling weeds. The plants along the outer perimeter will lean over to get sun and air and then set new roots and spread. Even well-shaded inner leaves show no signs of discoloration. So, I suspect this plant can even tolerate a fair amount of shade or being grown in indirect window sunlight.

Mature height in fertile soil ranges between about 3-4 feet. The plants are shorter in drier, less fertile soil.

Planting Details

  • Starts easily from seed. Can be direct planted or transplanted.
  • This basil grows slower than other basils at first. So it may need weeding for the first few weeks. But then it catches up quickly and does exceptionally well growing through hot weather.
  • Needs warm temperatures to germinate. Seeds started in late May in North Carolina, in 80 degrees F germinated in 2-3 days.
  • Water daily until plants are at least a few inches tall for faster growth rates.
  • Thinning is optional. This plant seems to self-select the winners if you over seed and then adjusts well to overcrowding.
  • It’s beautiful to plant in bunches for more impact than from individual plants.

Easy Composting for Your Organic Garden

That compost-driven potager I planned and started back in winter and spring is thriving even during extreme heat thanks to all the compost I used to amend the soil. In a 134 square foot garden, I’ve harvested 75 beets, 20 kohlrabi, 25 turnips, 5 large heads of storage cabbage, 18 pounds of potatoes, more carrots than I could count, daily salads from April to July, endless kale, chard, and mustard, herbs, peas, and more.

Now, one month into summer tomatoes, peppers, more beets, eggplant, okra, melons, chard, sweet potatoes, runner beans, and sunflowers are growing well in the garden. Fall vegetable seeds will go in a month from now so that I can harvest fresh food even into winter.

Oh, and did I mention that I only I spend about 1 hour a week tending the garden. Every couple of weeks, during hot dry periods, I spend an extra hour clearing up weeds and deep watering. I have picked off a few cabbage moth larva and I’ve had a little flea beetle and slug damage to a few leaves. But I’ve had no losses to pests and haven’t done anything to control for pests.

I owe all of this success, not to my own incredible intelligence (I wish), but to nature’s. Using nature’s method of adding fertility, in the form of top applied compost to encourage thriving soil life, this first year garden is doing amazing.

To maintain this kind of performance, I’ll need to add several inches of compost annually.

Easy Compost

Making compost is an incredibly satisfying act of environmental love. Knowing that you are putting what would otherwise be treated as “waste” to work in your garden is both soul and soil enriching.

There are endless ways to make compost. Before you get carried away by all the exciting compost bin plans out there, though, I want to make sure you know that you don’t need an elaborate system to make compost. You don’t need to spend a lot of money. You also don’t need to spend more than a few minutes every so often to make a whole lot of compost.

Compost is nature’s gift to us. Nature doesn’t care if you have a 2 bin system or a 3 bin system. Nature doesn’t demand that you use a multi-tiered vermicompost tower or inoculated bran and and an anaerobic container to do your composting.

Those things are tools that we choose to make compost on our terms. Depending on your circumstance, some tools may be useful or they might be a waste of your time. That’s for you to decide.

Nature, though, only needs a few things from you to convert your waste into something useful in the garden.

  1. Organic Matter
  2. Appropriate Moisture
  3. Airflow
  4. Time

This is a website devoted to simple homesteading. So, I am not going to be covering all the complicated ways to make compost. Instead, I am going to share some very simple, minimal work ways to help nature do what nature wants to do anyways.

I’ve also already covered vermicompost, bokashi, and compost calculations in other posts. So, if you are just joining me on this post, you may want to look back at those posts too.

How to Compost

Now, here’s how I make basic compost.

Step 1: Create Drainage

Make a first layer with a few inches of twigs and branches to elevate your pile off the ground for good drainage.

Step 2: Add Browns

You’ll be alternately layering 2 to 3 parts dried browns to 1 part greens until your pile is 4 feet tall and wide. But, you want to start with a good base of browns to absorb excess moisture from your greens.

For browns, I prefer straw or mulched leaves collected in fall. Shredded paper and bits of cardboard also work.

Step 3: Alternate Greens and Browns

Now, you’ll start the layering process by adding 1 part greens to every 2-3 part browns. Keep your greens layers no more than 2 inches deep for good airflow.

Greens are things like kitchen scraps, animal manure, grass clippings, or crop residues from the garden. As a rule of thumb, any plant parts harvested when they were green and actively growing or any animal by-products are counted as greens.

If you are using bokashi to expand your compost options, add that between layers of browns. Also, put it toward the bottom of the pile to discourage pests (just in case it’s not fully bokashi-ed).

Note: Your collection buckets might contain some browns like paper towels or junk mail. If you have lots of browns in there already lean toward 2 parts browns. If you have very few browns in your collection buckets, go for 3 parts browns.

Step 4: Repeat Until Complete, Then Water

Keep the top of the pile covered with a tarp, or other water proof protection, so it doesn’t get wet until it reaches full-size. Make sure the sides are not covered because you still need airflow to keep your pile from becoming anaerobic.

When your pile is about 4 feet tall and wide, water the entire pile until it feels like a wet but not soppy sponge. This will activate composting.

Step 5: Cover and Wait

After watering, top your pile with several inches of dry browns as a moisture barrier. Then, let the pile sit for uncovered 4 weeks.

If you happen to have heavy rain in the forecast put the tarp back on before it rains and remove it after the rain. Otherwise leave the pile open for good air flow.

Step 6: Turn and Burn

Now you need to turn your pile. This requires using a pitch fork to move the contents of the pile, fork load by fork load, to a new location.

Usually this new location is adjacent to your pile so you don’t have to move your pile very far. Also, you’ll want to layer some branches and browns on bottom like you did in steps 1 and 2 before you start forking to promote good drainage.

Try to fold the outsides of the pile in so they get to be on the inside in this new pile. You may also need to water your pile again so it feels like a wet but not sopping wet sponge.

Within 1-2 days of turning your pile, put your hand near, but not inside the pile. (Your pile could get to 160ºF, so don’t touch it!) Make sure you can feel lots of heat emanating from the pile. If not, then pour some fresh urine the pile as you can and check again in a day or two.

Step 7: Have Patience

Now, you just need to let your compost sit around for a year before you use it. That will allow any pathogens to time out. It will take care of some toxins such as minimal quantities of pesticides and herbicides that might have drifted into your lawn when your neighbor used those chemicals.

That time also gives all your compost critters a chance to decompose most of what’s in your pile without you having to sift a lot later.

Carbon to Nitrogen Calculations

Down the road, when you want to get a more balanced compost to control nutrients in your soil, understanding carbon to nitrogen ratios can be really helpful. However, I recommend you use this basic method based on parts of “browns and greens” a couple of times before you move up to fancy compost.

When you are ready for using carbon to nitrogen calculations to make even better compost, then head over MorningChores.com and look for the compost calculator I helped create.

A Few More Thoughts on Composting

Now that you know how easy making compost can be, there are a few other things for you to think about.

Turning The Pile

If you want to make compost quickly, you can turn your pile more often. The problem with doing this is that you attract mostly high-temperature loving compost bacteria to your pile. Those bacteria are great for decomposing things in a hurry. But since your soil temperatures are not going to be that high, they won’t do much for your soil and your plants when you put fast-made compost in your bed.

I normally turn a pile only once. Sometimes if stuff doesn’t seem to be breaking down or I don’t get noticeable heat when I turn the pile then I may turn it a 2nd or even 3rd time for good measure. Overall though, less turning and longer aging tend to be more beneficial for plants in my experience.

Sifting

I might shock a few people by saying this. But here goes.

I don’t sift my compost. Ever.

Usually the bits that aren’t fully decomposed after a year of aging disappear within a few weeks of spreading compost on soil. So, I’ve just never worried about them.

Every so often I’ll come across a clump of stuff in a compost pile that just didn’t break down because it stayed too wet. In that case, I break it apart and throw it into my next compost pile or I’ll give it to my worms for expedited processing.

Precision

You’ll notice that I only had you check for heat after you turned your pile. Other instruction sets have you check it each time, which is fine. But, I know lots of first time composters who don’t get heat in their first pile. It may be too wet, or wet only in certain places, the layers might be to light or too heavy.

By the time that stuff has sat around and melded for a month and attracted bacteria and fungi, then when you turn the pile and moisten it a second time, it almost always ignites. So, that’s why I don’t worry about a temperature check until I turn the pile.

– Compost Thermometer

Also, if your pile feels hot when you hover your hand near it, then it’s doing it’s thing just fine. However, if you want to be precise, get yourself a compost thermometer and take a reading. Temperatures between 135-165ºF are ideal.

– Moisture Meter

If you like the idea of using a thermometer, then you might also want to consider a moisture meter too. Aiming for about 60% water content in your pile is also ideal for active decomposition.

Bins

Bins are totally optional. However, they can be beneficial if you have neighbors who don’t want to see your unsightly pile, or if plan to compost things that rodents and raccoons might love to eat too.

If you are going to the trouble of setting up a multi-bin system, I suggest that you use hardwood or paint your parts so they last a while. Put roofs on them so you can better control moisture. And give yourself room to store lots of browns so you can make use of all your neighbors leaves too.

Skip the elevated bins that you have to turn daily. They seem simple. But I assure you a pile like the one described above will save you lots of work and frustration while making you more compost.

Conclusion

I’ll cover some more composting information in upcoming posts. But, now between vermicompost, bokashi, and basic compost, you have a great repertoire of tools to start really improving your soil.

Now, go perform your own act of environmental love by turning your waste into garden goodness!

Harvest and Succession Plant Your Homestead Potager

The garden explosion happened. Those tiny, seedlings I showed pictures of in the last post Plant Your Homestead Potager suddenly started to look like fully-fledged plants.

Even when you visit your garden daily, and observe the incremental growth, there is still this moment when you realize “Wow, this is a real garden.”

Honestly, it was a real garden from the first moment you poured your intentions into it. Yet, it always seems so surprising when your effort starts to pay off and your aesthetic ideals of a garden are gratified.

Stop and enjoy this moment. Savor it like you would a perfect, but fleeting sunset. Take some mental, or actual pictures, to refer back to from year to year. Then, get out your harvest basket and scissors and get to work.

Harvesting as Health Care for Your Garden

This is the point in time when you really have to be diligent. If you don’t stay on top of your harvesting and garden care, your plants’ heath will decline quickly.

So-called “pests” will come to help eradicate failing plants. We call them pests, but really they are just nature’s helpers, culling the poor performers so they don’t go to seed and start generations of weak plants.

As plants fail, the biological life in your soil will lose their sense of purpose. Those damaged plants begin to process nutrients poorly, leaving too much behind in the soil. . Those once eager biological workers start to go dormant from boredom as the nutrients they provide begin pile up and their efforts go unappreciated by dying root systems.

Don’t worry. This does not need to be the fate of your garden.

All you need to do is harvest and replenish what you take. Then, you’ll have a continuous supply of fresh food. Your soil life will be busy and satisfied. Your plants will be healthy and you won’t need the services of nature’s pest-like plant killers who offer a quick end to suffering plants.

The Continuous Harvest

If you took my advice and over seeded, you can use your scissors to cut out the extra plants that are smaller in size. Leave the largest, healthiest plants in the ground to grow out to maturity.

The Art of Thinning

If all those extra plants with edible greens look healthy, and aren’t developing slug problems, I thin in increments. That way I get a harvest of baby greens every day for a week or two. Even a small handful of fresh tasty greens can spruce up an omelet, make a great side salad, or be tossed with olive oil and salt when you need something salty and crunchy on warm days.

– Warning

If plants show signs of insect damage or leaf discoloration, then I thin brutally, leaving only those plants that have the best chance of success. Heavy rains followed by periods of hot, sunny days can create fungal problems and encourage slugs to move in. So, when that happens, I also speed up my thinning process to maintain good air circulation and avoid creating a slug heaven.

– Minimally Thinned Root Vegetables

Most plants ultimately need plenty of space to grow to mature size. However, there are a few that can grow to a large size even in close contact with fellow plants. For example, beets, turnips, and radish can grow in groups of 3-4, almost right on top of each other in fertile soil.

The bulb portions of the plants just push each other apart as they swell. Then, you can carefully harvest the biggest of the bulbs and let the others continue growing. You do need good airflow around your clusters though. So, you will still need to thin many of the greens for good root production.

– Non-Edible Plant Thinning

Even for plants that I can’t eat the thinnings of, like tomatoes and peppers, I still thin incrementally. High-performing, young plants really seem to benefit from a little competition and companionship at the outset of planting.

This method requires is a delicate balance though because once the strongest plants are established, they can become stunted by crowding. Usually within 2-3 weeks in warm weather and 3-4 weeks in cool weather, it’s time to let your winners make the rest of their journey toward plant maturity on their own.

Leave Non-eDible Roots In Place

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, bacteria and fungi form relationships with plant roots. So, if you rip out your plant roots every time you harvest, you end up taking a lot of those amazing garden helpers with you.

Instead, leave the roots in the ground when you can. Small roots decompose quickly. Even large roots can be left to decompose if you have room to plant around them.

If your plants have become pest infested, though, you’ll want to pull those roots out and throw them away so that you don’t run the risk of harboring lots of larva in your soil and plant matter.

Here’s an example of my kohlrabi seedlings before thinning.

Now, here’s what it looked like after I harvested the baby greens to use for making a variation on Palak Paneer. I only left the two largest plants on the outer edges of the photo so that they can continue to grow to maturity. The rest were dinner and delicious!

Fertilizing

If you need another application of organic fertilizer for your heavy feeders, then you can do this after you complete your thinning process.

When using slow-release, meal-based fertilizers like feather meal and bone meal, or organic 4-4-4 mixes, you can sprinkle them directly on the soil all around your plants. I like to cover them with a thin layer of compost and then water them in to help them start to penetrate the soil.

When you eventually harvest your mature plants, you’ll also want to fertilize the bed again before you start a new crop. Then, you’re all set to start growing your next crop.

Succession Planting

As you finish harvesting your cool season crops, you’ll most likely want to put in warm season crops. For example, if your March planted peas are spent, then it might be time for your late-May planted green beans. When cabbage comes out, okra might go in.

If you are removing warm season crops, it may be time to start planting for a fall harvest. Fall gardening really starts in summer. This is usually around late July through mid-August. But the exact timing for fall planting depends on your climate and growing season.

Your fall plants need to be well-established before your day-length shortens too much and soil temperatures cool. Winter cover crops are generally started around this time too.

If it’s not quite fall planting time, you may need to grow a short term, hot season cover crop like buckwheat or cowpeas. The important thing is never to leave your beds unplanted.

I often put my new seeds in the ground a few days before I harvest the entire mature plant (e.g. cabbage heads). That gives the seeds time to acclimate and activate. Once I remove the ready to harvest plants, those eager seeds seem to sprout instantly.

Note, this only works if you can leave the mature plant roots in the ground. You don’t want to disturb newly planted seeds by pulling out old roots.

Come and Cut Greens

Lettuce Bed Before Harvest

For densely planted come and cut greens, like the lettuce bed shown above, I harvest in sections. This promotes good air flow and keeps the bed looking full even after I fill my salad bowl.

You want to leave at least an inch of leaf producing part of each plant so that the lettuce leaves can regrow from the base. Many of your lettuce plants will actually make multiple heads and start to become more productive as you harvest them.

Lettuce Bed After Harvest

Once that happens, you’ll be able to harvest a section of your bed almost daily . Then, a week later when you’re ready to re-harvest that first section, it will be lush and ready to cut again.

If your plants start to bolt (send up flower stalks), you need to harvest them all the way to the soil at each cutting to kill those plant and make room for more. Right after you cut a bolting section down, add some more fertilizer to the soil and cover with 1-2 inches of compost. Then, re-seed your next round of lettuce right over your just butchered patch.

If you do this in segments, your garden bed will never be completely bare while waiting for new seedlings to sprout. When you get your timing exactly right, then you never want for lettuce.

In hot climates, your second planting may need to be a collection of oak leaf lettuces or alternative greens like New Zealand spinach that better tolerate excessive heat.

Salad Preparation Tip

Cut your lettuce up into bite size portions and put them directly in your salad spinner in the garden. Then, all you need to do is give them a rinse and spin back in the house and they are ready to eat.

Slug Tip

Also, if you do have issues with slugs, they tend to be heaviest in the bottom inch or two of the cut leaves.By trimming that area and throwing it on top of your compost pile to dry out in the sun, you remove the slugs from your lettuce bed and have fewer pests to wash out of your cut lettuce.

Conclusion

Your timing and efficiency at harvesting vegetables from your potager will get better the more you do it. Take notes on what works and what doesn’t. Visualize ways that you’ll improve your process for next year as you go along, even if it’s too late to correct things this year.

In my experience, the best time to plan your garden for next year is actually right now while you are in the thick of the growing season. You may not formalize your plan until winter when you have time to sit down and write it out. But, by solving challenges and making plans for your future garden now, and keeping good notes so you remember, your work will be mostly done before you put your future plantings on paper.

Next time, we’ll start to get into the details of making compost right in the garden. In the meantime…Bon Appétit!