The COVID-19 virus has made it difficult for grocery stores to keep shelves stocked. I visited the grocery for the first time in a month and was surprised to see so many shelves empty. Toilet paper, of course, was no where to be found. But, other things like flour, eggs, butter, and many fresh vegetables were in short supply too.
Seeing so many of our necessities and favorites missing from the shelves makes us feel especially vulnerable in tough times. So, many people are trying to reclaim a little control for their food supply by starting vegetable gardens.
More gardeners is a great thing. But it’s happening at a hard time. Seed sellers are seeing explosions in sales. Some sellers have had to cut off seed access to non-farmers because demand is so high and supply chains weren’t ready for this much sudden interest. But even in a crisis, with supply shortages, there are still things you can do to get started gardening.
Most importantly, remember that no matter what, the basics are the same. You have to prepare your soil. You have to plan your layout, even if it’s just a temporary. If you aren’t already composting, start now! If you can vermicompost – even better!
Once you do those things, the challenge of finding seeds and plants remains. So, here are some ideas to help you get started right now… even if you can’t get seeds delivered from online sellers.
Ask gardeners you know to share a few seeds (using social distancing pick-ups).
Local vegetable farmers may sell plant starts. (Even those that normally don’t sell plants, might be willing to now. So ask.)
You can also start many things from cuttings including all of your herbs. Get these at the grocery or from friends and neighbors yards (with permission).
You can start sweet potato slips from the sweet potatoes you get at the grocery store. Also, sweet potato vines can be cooked like spinach. So even if you don’t have 120 warm days to grow these for tubers, you can grow them just for the greens.
The seeds in store bought pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and more can be planted. They are likely hybrids, so the plant you get will be completely different than the one you planted from. But it will most likely still be edible.
You can also use the crowns of celery, romaine lettuce, carrots, parsnips, and others to grow more. Just put the base in water (changed daily) until roots form. Then plant in your garden.
Even though it’s not ideal, you can also use store bought potatoes as seed potatoes. Soak the tubers in water for a couple hours to expunge any growth retardants. Place in a warm location until eyes form. Then use 2-3 ounce pieces as seed potatoes.
Onions, garlic, and ginger from the store can also be planted. The tops of these three plants are edible too. So, you may want to grow them just for the greens. Ginger needs warm weather to grow.
Dried grocery store beans can also be used as seeds. Just plant extras because germination rates will be low.
Even your spice seeds such as dried mustard and coriander can be used in a bind.
Note for items from the grocery store because these are mass harvested, the plants they produces aren’t likely to be the best, most productive, or beautiful. They also have a higher risk for plant pathogens than certified disease free seeds and plants. Yet, in a crisis, if this is all you have to work with, it’s certainly worth trying.
Also, although no one lines to think about it under normal circumstances, diluted urine makes a perfect fertilizer. Don’t apply to plant leaves. Instead apply to the soil. You can read my post about using urine in the garden on Morning Chores.
Also, before you say “gross” think about this fact. All organic garden soil is loaded with the excrement and dead bodies of decomposed of insects, bacteria, fungi, and others. It also contains bird poop from the birds who fly over or eat pests. Oh and, commercial farmers who sell at grocery stores use industrial sewage and feed lot manure to fertilize field crops.
Closing the loop by using waste to add nutrients to soil is the foundation of sustainable agriculture. We just have to be smart about how we do it.
Most soils have some minerals. But many are simply too compacted to grow in. It will take some work, but if you can dig up your soil and mix it with mulched leaves, you can very quickly improve the structure so that you can at least grow some kinds of vegetables.
Ideally, you’ll also add well-aged compost. But that can also be hard to find these days. So, work with what you have.
Care and Share
Especially when gardening in non-ideal conditions, good plant care is the key to getting a crop. Water regularly, weed often, add compost as soon as you have it, mulch with a light layer of grass clippings or paper, and hand pick insects if you see multiples.
Finally, always remember, nature is built on sharing not hoarding. Share your extras. Share what you learn. Then, you’ll not only grow a garden, but a strong community that often shares exactly what you you need in surprising ways.
Choosing the plants that will grow well in your climate, weather, soil type, and garden is quite complicated. That’s why a big part of becoming a good gardener is learning how to read your landscape, understand your conditions, and carefully select plants that are most likely to thrive where you live.
If you want to learn more about all the intricacies involved in careful plant selection, then check out my post on MorningChores.com.
Also, remember to give any new plant a little extra care until you are certain it is happy and habituated to its new home. Start with good soil, water regularly, and fertilize organically with compost, compost tea, or slow-release bagged mixes that won’t be toxic for all the beneficial organisms that live in your soil.
Did you know that you can homestead anywhere? Homesteading is a basic set of life skills that can be practiced wherever you live right now. So don’t let a lack of land limit your dreams. Make up for a shortage of acreage with creativity and access to awesome resources!
Here’s an article I wrote for Morning Chores on the various pros and cons of homesteading in different locations to help you get started.
If you are looking for inspiration to help you choose the right duck breeds for your homestead, take a look at my post on Morning Chores.
While you are there, take a few minutes to browse all the other informative homestead posts and inspiration on that amazing reference site. There are all sorts of livestock tips, plant growing guides, food preparation and preservation details, and more.
In particular, you may find these free calculator tools useful for garden and livestock care.
I absolutely love ducks, so it’s not a shocker that my first homestead project of the year was duck related. I re-purpuposed a small, semi-mobile chicken coop into a larger duck house. Essentially, I sat the coop on a 4 x 4 frame, over a couple layers of recycled cinder blocks and end caps.
Two Runner ducks, two Welsh Harlequins, two Rouens, a White Crested, and a Khaki Campbell are the new residents in my chicken coop turned duck house. The ducks don’t actually live in the coop. Instead, the ducks live beneath it in direct contact with soil in the earthen underparts inside the cinder blocks.
The coop itself is still intact. I can use the old ramp opening, my chickens used to use, to reach in and collect eggs. However, I usually let these ducks out at daybreak, before they would normally lay. So, I’ll also offer them private nest spaces outside the coop come spring.
I’ve done a lot of experimentation with duck housing and spacing. I’ve even let them pick their shelters. My small flocks opt for cozy, damp spaces without light when dark approaches. (By contrast, larger flocks prefer the pond as nighttime protection even over a large, ideal duck house.)
The challenge, though, is keeping a cozy duck house from becoming a stinkpot. To solve that issue, I situated their new home on a slight slope at the base of a larger hill. When it rains, a bit of extra water washes into their earthen residence and helps the manure percolate into the ground. Of course, during droughts, I’ll have to be the rain.
The soil around and under the house is fast-draining and teeming with soil life because I’ve been adding organic matter there for years. So far there is no smell, but we’ll see if that’s still true in August. I also put down a layer of hardware cloth to keep diggers from accessing my ducks in their night shelter. But I am not using bedding at all.
The run was inspired by the idea of chicken chunnels. It’s about a 45 feet long and nestled between my goat pasture and my primary vegetable garden. It spans 4 to 5 feet in width. I’ll be adding a bamboo top soon to give the ducks shade before the weather warms up.
The fencing on the right is home to a line of wild blackberries in the spring and summer. The ducks will keep those briers from crossing into the formal garden, while enjoying eating the berries and leaves they can reach. The yellow fence on the left will grow something viney, but I haven’t decided what yet. That soil will have too much nitrogen from the ducks to grow legumes. So, I am thinking maybe hops, nasturtium, or Maypop vines could be light weight alternatives.
The yellow fencing is made using old grape vine posts (compliments of our friends Ken and Kari at Round Peak vineyards). Then, I doubled up two lengths of frayed fire hazard electric poultry netting that is no longer useful with a charger, but is perfectly suitable to confine ducks. I used additional posts as weights at the bottom of the fence for stability and to keep ducks from, well, ducking under. (Sorry, had to!)
Gently down slope of the duck house is an edible landscape areas with fruits and berries. The idea is that the manure in the run soaks into the soil and is dispersed by microlife to the nearby plants. I have used this logic with ducks for several years and it works incredibly well.
The big question is… will this work with Mirabelle plums?
Against my better plant judgement, I am attempting to grow Mirabelle plums in North Carolina. I first encountered these amazing fruits in Northern parts of France like Normandy and Nancy. Though, they are more common in Lorraine.
Mirabelle are the sweetest, most fragrant, yet diminutive plums I have ever eaten. So, even though I might be crazy, I still had to try to grow them.
The climates where Mirabelles grow well have cool summers and moderate winters. Meanwhile, we have erratic winters and summers that start mild but end hot, humid and drought prone.
For the past two years, my Mirabelle trees have survived only by dropping their leaves in late July and putting them back on a few weeks later. This process of leaf drop is stressful on the young plants and puts them at risk for not storing enough nutrients to survive winter and bud in spring. Yet, it saves them from succumbing to death by overheating.
I am hoping that the cooling and nourishing effect of having a shaded duck run slightly uphill of the Mirabelles will drop the soil temperature a few degrees, and keep those plants well-hydrated during our hot summers. If that works, perhaps they can stay cool enough without leaf dropping.
It’s January and the Mirabelles are having their winter rest. The ducks are enjoying the henbit, deadnettle, annual grasses, and bitter cress that sprouted in our winter warm streak. So, it will be a while before I know if my two loves – ducks and Mirabelles – also love each other.
Still, seeing my beautiful ducks make themselves at home in their new run and yellow duck house gives me hope for a Mirabelle plum-filled future. And since my favorite spring and summer seating area is just 20 feet from the duck house, I’ll have the perfect front row seat to watch that relationship evolve.
If you are looking for a plant to make you happy mid-winter, let me tell you about these glorious golden globes pictured above. These luscious lovelies make the whole month of January feel like it’s lit with radiant summer sunshine. On cloudy days, or when I just need a winter pick me up, I head to he greenhouse to basque in their yellow luminescence.
In case you are wondering how I grow such gigantic lemons, then let me introduction you Meyer lemons. These are actually a cross between a lemon and an orange. They taste like super sweet lemons and grow as big as large oranges. So, while I am quite proud of my lemon size, I can’t take all the credit. This plant’s genetics play a big role.
How to Use
Meyer lemon rinds are perfect for candying, using to make homemade limoncello, and in just about any recipe that calls for lemon zest. (For limoncello, infuse vodka or white rum with the rinds of about 5-6 lemons for two weeks. Strain, then sweeten with sugar to your desired taste.)
The juice is perfect for lemonade. Squeeze and freeze it in ice cube trays. Then store the frozen cubes in baggies to use to make fresh lemonade whenever you need it.
These lemons are particularly wonderful to use for making homemade paneer cheese. Heat the cheese to nearly boiling, then squeeze in the lemon juice to trigger coagulation. After that, strain the curds through a flour sack towel and hang to dry for a few hours. It takes the juice of one lemon for every gallon of milk.
Tip: Throw in a few fenugreek seeds while heating your milk to make an extra aromatic paneer. The lemon and maple notes blend perfectly together.
My tree is planted in the ground near the center of my greenhouse. Soil pH in the root zone is about 6.0.
Temperatures stay above 35℉ at night in winter. During the day, winter temperatures in the greenhouse range between 50-80℉. In spring and summer the greenhouse is around 70 ℉ at night and 80-85℉ during day. The tree is protected from frost and there’s no wind.
It gets plenty of filtered sunshine. I add compost and mulch annually. I water deeply about once a month. I’m also growing several shallow rooted or potted shade plants over the lemon root zone. I water them more often, so some residual water filters down to keep the top few inches of soil moist.
I grow this more like a bush. I prune only for height and width. I also use coconut rope to wrap around the branches and tie them to each other. This creates a kind of self-supporting cage for the fruit heavy branches.
I’ve grown as many as 5-6 giant lemons on one branch. The lemons all grow large and don’t seem to mind not being thinned. The key is just to make sure the branches are supported so they don’t fold and crack.
As far as fertilizer goes, my tree gets compost tea when watered. It also gets fresh liquid gold applications at least weekly. (For those of you not familiar with the term liquid gold, that means we occasionally pee near the root zone. No sense in wasting nature’s perfect nitrogen source!)
Time to Harvest
I bought a 4 inch potted tree, in spring, three years go. The first year it produced 4 lemons, the second 8 lemons, this year we stopped counting at 60 lemons. The tree begins flowering in January while the lemons are nearly all ripe. It continues to flower until March.
Magically then, despite the long flowering period, the fruit all ripen within just a few weeks of each other in January. So you get amazingly aromatic lemons and blossoms at the same time!
If you can create the right conditions for year-round growing, or live in a climate where citrus thrives, fresh Meyer lemons can make the dark days of winter feel sunshine-filled. Plus chef’s love them – even homested cooks like me can appreciate the exceptional quality and taste profile of this winter beauty.
Is it an herb or a spice? Am I a girl or a woman? I was a girl once, but now age and experience have made me a woman. This is very much the same with cilantro and coriander.
The bright green, fanning, lace like leaves with their brash, tangy, citrusy flavor and exuberant aroma are the youthful, immature stage of the plant. As the plant ages, it grows taller, more slender and elegant. Delicate umbel flowers develop and open.
As it reaches the age of wisdom, those flowers give way to seeds that impart knowledge dating back thousands of years and have the power to launch thousands of new generations.
Coriander is the culmination. The life’s work of the cilantro plant. Its enduring legacy. Or perhaps, the coriander/cilantro difference is just a retail device to distinguish leaves from seeds.
In fact, many cultures only have one word to describe both the leaves and the seeds of this ancient herb and spice. In the US, coriander came by way of European settlers as early as 1670. Yet, it was popularized on supermarket shelves for it’s utility in “Mexican” food.
I use Mexican in quotes because the truth is much of the cuisine deemed Mexican in the US could be Peruvian, Bolivian, Salvadorian, Ecuadorian, and more. In fact, the herb you find in dishes in Latin American countries might actually be a completely unrelated herb called Culantro.
Culantro can be shade grown even in tropical climates. Though, subject to bolting as days grow long, it is a bit more durable in the heat than cool season cilantro.
The most incredible thing to me though isn’t why we call these plants what we call them. It’s that nearly every country on earth has at least one name for this amazing edible treasure. That’s because it is so universally recognized for its culinary utility.
One of my favorite ways to use and preserve cool season cilantro is to ferment it. Coursly chop the leaves. Weight them. Add 2% salt by weight to the leaves. Stir until the leaves begin expressing liquid. Then, mash into a jar.
You can put fermentation weights and a lid on this. Then let it sit in a warm location out of direct light for 3-7 days.
Or you can tuck some washed, scavenged rocks in a plastic baggy and use those to weight your ferment in the jar. Then, fold the baggy over the rim of the jar and wrap with a rubber band. This creates your air lock. Once a day, remove the rubber band and fold up the sides to let the ferment off glass for a few seconds. Then, close.
After those 3-7 days, use your fermented cilantro on tacos, in salsa, as a garnish for soup, tossed in salads, or any other place where you regularly use cilantro.
Here are some of my other favorite uses from around the web.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.