Tuesday, June 14, 2011

"Teenage" Quail

The coturnix quail are 2 1/2 weeks now. Since they can be laying eggs as soon as 5 weeks I guess this makes them teenagers. Their baby fuzz is almost gone and so far they all look like girls! One may surprise me, but i guess it is time to start thinking up girl's names.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bale Fail

One of my experiments for this year was growing vegetables in straw bales. It is a pretty simple concept. Instead of planting in the dirt, you add a layer of dirt to the top of an aged straw bale and plant in that. This allows you to grow in areas with bad soil, lots of rocks, or other challenging garden situations.

Since I had a rather "challenged" area near the north fence in the front yard, I thought straw bales would allow me to grow some veggies rather than waiting a year as I beat that spot in to shape. I planted some peas after giving the straw bales time to age, adding good soil and keeping the bales moist.

While a few of the peas sprouted, it wasn't long before I knew something was not right. They grew about 2" and then stopped. Some started to turn yellow. Thinking the frequent watering had depleted the nutrients in the shallow soil layer, I gave it shot of compost tea. It seemed to help a little bit, but only a few pea plants started to grow again. The rest just sat there looking all pathetic.

While I was prepared for extra feedings, the extra time to age the bales, and the possibility of frequent waterings due to the porous nature of the bales, I had not counted on the wind. The constant, hot, annoying, ridiculously strong winds we have been hit with since early in the year. I have lived in this area for over 25 years and I have never seen a year like this. Chicago, often called the windy city, has nothing on Colorado. The whole state is a giant wind tunnel right now.

Even when watering two and 3 times a day did nothing to keep the straw bales moist enough to get many of the plants to sprout or to get them to a productive size even if they somehow did. There was no reason to keep pouring good water and fertilizer after bad. I went ahead and cut open 3 of the bales. They were as dry as dust on the inside when they should have been damp and started to break down and look more like rich soil. Even a bale I had wrapped in plastic as a last ditch attempt to get it to stay somewhat wet for more than 5 seconds was dried out. Straw bale gardening in a hot, dry climate was a total fail.

I did have an area where instead of plants growing on soil on straw, I had soil in an indented area surrounded by loose straw. The straw acted as a wind break and allowed plants to sprout in that dimple that didn't emerge on top of the bales. If you live in a windy area, think of your straw more as a wind block and not as a soil substitute, and you should avoid the bale fail I experienced. Over the next few days I will finish cutting open the hay bales and use the straw to mulch in other areas so it wont be a total waste.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Colorado Sweet Potatoes

Colorado is not the first state that comes to mind when you think of sweet potato production. Since sweet potatoes need such a long, warm growing season, California is where most of the nations sweet potatoes come from. Of course, this fact didn't stop me from trying to grow them at high altitude last year.

While Colorado has plenty of warm, sunny days, what is doesn't have are nice warm nights. This effectively makes us a short growing season state. (think Minnesota with fewer mosquitos, less water and better scenery). But I had been experimenting with extending growing seasons with hoop houses, mulching, thermal mass, etc... and thought sweet potatoes would be a good test of my nature-cheating skills.

To start my test, I bought an organic garnet sweet potato from Vitamin Cottage in February and set it up to produce slips. By April I had plenty of healthy, good sized starts. Since I needed to buy the plants more time to make it through our short growing season, I set up some growing containers, painted them black to absorb more heat, and made little green house type tents to go over the top. I also added some 1 liter bottles filled with water and placed them around the starts. This set-up protected the plants through the weirdness that is Colorado in the Spring and I was rewarded with  pretty good harvest all things considered.

Not bad for a first try! While I considered my experiment to be a success, I was not looking forward to coddling sweet potatoes again this year. With a full-time job, ducklings hatching and baby quail coming in, potato pampering didn't even make the TO DO list. I had also done some research over the winter and discovered there are actually several varieties of sweet potato specifically tailored to growing in colder climates.

I spent several months trying to find sources for these potatoes and had quite a hard time. While your typical seed store has the long season varieties, the short season potatoes are not as well known or as widely distributed. Sandhill Preservation Center carries some, but you have to order assortments. Plus their order form is confusing and I really wanted Korean Purple sweet potatoes, something they didn't offer. Fortunately I stumbled upon Abundant Acres. They had a great selection of early season sweet potatoes and I decided to give them a try. 

By the time I discovered their website, they had already sold out of the Korean Purples so I settled for an order of Violetta and an order of Carogold sweet potatoes. I wasn't sure exactly what I was going get as far as quality, but I figured I would be brave and take a chance. Even though I paid in March, they do not ship until you are past the last frost date for your region. I finally got my order last week.

The Violetta plants were strong, thick and robust. Unfortunately the Carogolds looked like they had been stepped on by elephants. The leaves were nothing but mush. The box didn't look damaged, so I am not sure if there was a packing accident or if the weird hot weather got to them. I sent off an email to Pam at Abundant Acres with photos showing the damage and they replied immediately and sent replacements. Only a few days later the new plants arrived and they were in much better shape. 

Overall the Carogold plants are more delicate than the thicker, more robust violettas, but both sweet potato varieties are in the dirt and now doing well. I am pretty excited about growing a sweet potato more suited to my climate and should get an even better harvest than I did from my garnet sweet potatoes last year. The customer service at Abundant Acres was wonderful despite the initial plant issue and I will definitely be ordering from them again. So remember folks, growing sweet potatoes isn't just for Southerners and Surfers and we can grow them up here too.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

New recruits

Here are the new coturnix quail we picked up from Kiowa Kountry Korner. They are extremely active and very healthy. Since they are straight run, we have no idea who is a boy or girl, so no names yet.

Like most children, they really seem to enjoy playing with their food.

Growing ducklings

These are the three girls we are keeping from Abby's hatch. They have already been named so I will introduce you to Amy Farrah Fowler (left), Bernadette (center) and Penny (right).

Monday, May 16, 2011

I hate squirrels!

Squirrels are evil. They are nothing but rats with good PR. They cause hundreds of dollars worth of damage to my property alone. Last year they tore apart my lawn furniture cushions, ate all my pumpkins and dug up seeds right after I planted them. We were lucky to get any fruit and it is always a race to see if we can get apples, pears and grapes harvested before they trash them all.

The face of pure evil

Just today they dug up all but one of my sunflower seedlings and then bit them in half. They also destroyed 2 tomato plants by digging at the roots. My only satisfaction was I managed to blast 2 of them with the garden hose before they dug up the corn.

Living in the burbs, I can't just grab a shot gun and blow them in to tiny bits. We have trapped them in the past, but squirrels are smart. They figured out the trap long ago. Sling shots and BB guns will get their attention, but neither is strong enough to permanently take care of these evil beasts.

I am especially not happy at being outsmarted by a rodent with a brain the size of a pea, but this monkey isn't giving up. For now, all the wire baskets I could find are being employed to protecting the tomatoes. Netting has kept them out of the cabbage bed so far, but I have a lot of growing area and will need to beef up security. I see a trip to the hardware store in the future.

The back yard may end up looking like Alcatraz, but at least I will have something to harvest.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Abby's first hatch

6 ducklings. All girls amazingly. Three have already gone to new homes. Mom is being fiercely protective of the other three.

Monday, April 25, 2011

It's a boy! And a girl....and another girl.... and....

I sold some hatching eggs to a woman in Louisiana about a month ago. The other day I recently received this nice little picture from her so I guess I am a ducky grandma.

Some of these ducklings are from my shipped eggs and some are from her eggs. That's quite a lot of cuteness!

Hatching shipped eggs can be tricky, but it can also be worth the risk to get a breed of duckling you really want. Plus if a batch of hatching eggs gets lost in the mail, no biggie. If a shipment of live ducklings gets lost in the mail.....YIKES!

I will be taking a chance on some shipping eggs once I finally get my incubator issues figured out. By buying hatching eggs, I can get a drake from a different bloodline and ensure genetic diversity in my little flock. With patience and luck, I should end up with my own box of cuteness!

Congratulations on the ducklings Kerath!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Broody Mama

Our duck hen Abby Cadabby, succumbed to maternal instincts a few weeks ago. We think she has about 2 more weeks to go before we should see some ducklings. Being a first time mom, hatching out a clutch is not a sure thing, but she seems determined and we are hopeful.
Abby Cadabby on her nest.

The other ducks have been busy doing ducky things and enjoying the short bouts of nice weather. Last time the sun was out, I herded them to the front yard for some landscaping duties.
Unfortunately they were more interested in playing in the sprinkler than working. They did manage to get some aerating done as well as bug munching, but the sprinkler was definitely the big draw.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Spring 2011 Update

Just a few updates about what is going on down on the microfarm. Even though my space is small, there seems to be no end of work!
  • New tank for the pond: Pat in Manitou, mom to a few of the ducks from last year's flock, has gifted us with a 250 gallon stock tank (top). This has been added to our food pond system where we grow rosy minnows and duckweed for feeding the flock and also use people food plants as part of the filtration. Last year we grew strawberries, peppers, melons and basil. This year we will be doing the same as well as increasing our pepper growing efforts. Along with sweet red peppers we are going to grow chiltepin peppers, habanero peppers, serrano peppers and cayenne peppers. Starters are in pots right now.
  • Broody duck: Abby Cadabby, a Welsh Harlequin hen hatched here last year, has succumbed to maternal instincts and is sitting on a nest of around 1 dozen eggs. We have put some movable fencing around her nest located inside a plastic doghouse. This way the drakes wont pester her and the other ducks wont try to push her out so they can lay their eggs in that spot. She tried to get out the first day, but when she realized she would still get her morning peas and instead of competing with the rest of the flock they would be had delivered, she settled right down.
  • New nest: With no access to the dog house/nesting box, the other duck hens have decided that they like laying behind the dog house in a quiet corner. Of course I have to climb over stuff to get to the eggs and it took me a few days to find where they were hiding their eggs, but I am on to them now!
  • New pumpkin patch: Next to the new stock tank we are taking an area prone to weeds and turning it to a pumpkin patch. We are using the "lasagna garden" method of creating the bed. First lay down a thick layer of newspaper, add a layer of compost, then add some top soil. This method worked great last year in the tomato bed. It is a no-till way to get excellent, relatively weed-free growing areas instantly.
  • Cold Frame: The two cold frames we put up last month are doing great. In one we planted directly in the soil and have radishes, spinach and lettuce growing. The other we just placed nursery pots inside and put seeds in the pots. We have beans, melons, tomatoes and corn growing well out there right now. With our wacky Spring weather these cold frames really help get a jump on the season while protecting the plants.
  • Seedlings: While we do have some seedlings started indoors, we also put a rack of seed flats outside. It is technically too early to start many things outside in this region, but the shelving unit the pots are on is wrapped in a frost blanket. This gives protection down to about 20º but still allows 95% of the light in. We shouldn't go much below 30º at this point so we are hoping the simple frost blanket wrap lets us start plants without further crowding our tiny house.
  • Perennials: Our chives, rhubarb, horse radish, thyme, mint, clover, day lilies, rue, and Japanese spireas are back. The chives are going crazy. Other plants are starting to put out little shoots and the apples and pear trees are about to flower. Not sure if our tarragon made it though. We grew it for the first time last year and we are not sure when it is supposed to reemerge.
  • Potatoes: We are growing potatoes for the first time this year. The selected method is growing them in garbage cans. The bottoms of the plastic cans are cut out and replaced with wire mesh. A small layer of compost is added and then add potatoes and cover with more compost. As the vines grow, you add more compost, leaves, straw, etc... leaving just a few inches of plant at the top. By the end of the growing season the can is full to the top and the can is full of potatoes...at least in theory. To harvest, you dump out the can. We are trying organic Yukon Gold and organic Purple Potatoes.
  • Grow bags: Having plenty of sturdy plastic woven feed bags leftover from buying duck food, we are going to put those bags to use and use them for growing zucchini, patty pan squash, sweet potatoes and melons. To prep the bags, you only need to poke a few holes along the sides at the bottom, fill with compost and top with some garden soil. There are areas in the yard where surface tree roots have proven to be an issue and that is where the grow bags will be used.
  • Straw bale garden: Another way to get quick gardening space without back-breaking digging and soil amendments is to grow your plants in straw bales. In a rocky spot with hard soil we placed 3 straw bales and topped it with garden soil. Peas were planted and we already have sprouts. To learn more about straw bale gardening click here.
More updates to come!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Seed shopping in the food isle

Everyone knows you can buy seeds in those cute little seed packets in the garden center. But you can also get great garden seeds from packages of food in the grocery store.

Two things I just recently tested for germination were quinoa and anasazi beans. I bought 1 lb bags of each in the bulk food isle at the grocery store. I then put some seeds on a plate between wet paper towels and waited to see if they would germinate. Within a few hours I had the beginnings of quinoa sprouts. The next morning almost all had sprouted. It took 2 days but almost all of the anasazi beans in the paper towels also sprouted. Once I figured out they were viable seeds, I planted some of each. The beans are now growing inside in jiffy pots. The quinoa is outside under a frost blanket.

I have also tested organic whole peas, mung beans and amaranth with good results. The only time I had something not work was when I picked up a clearance bag of whole peas. The color looked a little off and I should have know better. I only got about a 30% germination rate when I tried to sprout some. The rest got cooked and the flavor was stale. I ended up tossing them.

Testing beans and other seed items for germination rate is also a good way to see if the food you are getting is fresh. If your stuff doesn't sprout, it has probably been sitting on the store shelf for a long time and you may want to buy a different brand or shop at a different store. You may also want to be a little more careful when looking at the clearance bin.

The potential money savings you can get by buying 1 lb bags sold as food vs. the seed packets is incredible. Take the quinoa for example. A few weeks ago I bought a 2 gram package of rainbow quinoa for $1.89. The 1 lb bag of white quinoa in the grocery isle was $3.89. I bought it for dinner, but there is plenty in a 1 lb container for eating AND planting your entire yard and even a few neighbors'. Looking at the math, there are 453.59237 grams per pound. Quinoa seeds in a garden packet work out to 95¢/gram. Purchased as a bag of food, they are less than a penny/gram.

I've had great luck at the local Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocer. Their bulk beans, seeds and grains usually come in 1 lb bags, move quickly enough to ensure freshness, and are even organic. Other stores will have bulk beans and seeds or prepackaged bags, just make sure the items are whole and not cracked, split or otherwise processed.

Others have tried growing their groceries and have had great results. Here are a few reports from members of www.TheEasyGarden.com.

"I grew wheat and amaranth last year from seed from the grocery store. We also got started on our millet by planting the seeds from the sprays sold for bird food. I planted lentils and they grew well, but the seedpods only hold one or two lentils. Not really worth growing, but it was a fun project, to see if we could and what they looked like. I figure it still was good for the soil, since they are a legume....
I planted popcorn that I got at the healthfood store. It was organic popcorn and it grew very well. We now have several jars of our own popcorn, from a handful that I planted." - FarmerDenise

"And we have terrific Yukon Gold potatoes that we hold over year after year for our own seed potatoes. They were originally a 10 lb bag of store bought. I know, lots of people say that's risky and you should only plant certified seed potatoes. But it's worked out fine for us. We get a great crop every year with many very large potatoes, and they store really well." - Kim_NC

"I've done various beans and dried peas with success. Organic wheat and oats sprout well. I grow them into grass for my cats. (I buy bulk whole grains to make my own flour so I get it by the 50-pound sack, plenty to grow) I always grow potatoes and sweet potatoes from store bought ones. Also garlic, I buy whole cloves of garlic in the produce aisle and break them up and plant them." - Ariel301

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ducks for meat

If you are a vegan, vegetarian, or someone who likes to pretend that meat spontaneously generates out of styrofoam trays covered in plastic, you may want to skip this post.

Still here?

Ok, lets talk about ducks as a meat source. The main reason I have ducks are for the eggs, but when you raise ducks, there is always an issue of not enough hens and too many drakes. Since you only need 1 drake for every 4 or so hens, and ducks hatch out at about 1/1 male to female, what happens to those extra boys?

This is where the meat thing comes in. Lets face it, duck is delicious. Duck breast has a flavor closer to steak than chicken. The duck fat you get off a roasted duck can be used to cook other meals. The thigh and leg meat makes excellent sausages. The carcass makes a fantastic, nutritious bone broth. To put it simply ducks = yum.

The only problem with getting the duck to the point of being meat is that you have to kill the duck. Killing something is hard enough. When it is cute and you know it on a first name basis it is even harder. But the cold hard reality is that if you eat meat, something had to die for you to get a meal. Eating meat from an animal you know has received the proper food, lived in uncramped conditions, was perfectly healthy, and was allowed to live as naturally as possible is reason to be happy, not sad.

Meat that is raised on fresh air, sunshine, and natural food is going to be way more nourishing than factory raised meat fed corn and soy that is typically available in the super market. Butchering an animal might not be something most people are able to do, but it is something anyone who eats meat should consider. A chicken had to die for you to eat a McNugget, even if you can't identify what part of the chicken a McNugget is. Meat comes from somewhere, and it isn't from those yellow trays.

Having butchered 2 ducks so far, I can say that the quality of meat and knowing how the animal was raised is a big consideration. I am confident that the ducks had a great life, I know what they ate, and I know that is reflected in the nutrition value of the meat. As we get to the time of year when we hatch out more ducklings, the excess drakes will end up as food. I doubt many of my friends will be able to eat duck meat if they know I raised it. Even discussing butchering makes them uncomfortable. This is sad really. Why can they eat store chicken and not a chicken they saw walking around? What makes my duck inedible but crispy duck at a restaurant perfectly OK?

By removing themselves from the true origins of their food they can live in ignorant bliss. I guess I am much happier living in reality. I know where my food came from. Do you?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Here comes the sun...

Many people think that the reason their ducks or chickens aren't laying eggs this time of year is because of the cold weather. While weather can play a role since energy needed to stay warm is diverted from the egg laying process, the largest determining factor in egg laying is sunlight.

"The reproductive state of all birds is strongly regulated by the amount of light that they receive each day. If hens are to maintain a constant state of egg production, they must be subjected to at least 16 hours of light every day. This light can be provided from sunlight, artificial light sources, or a combination." more

At the end of Winter as the days get longer, egg laying is triggered. Shown: Abby Cadabby, who is already laying, nibbling on some melting snow. Who knew ducks liked snow cones??

This topic came up recently when a duck owner in Manitou, CO contacted me because her ducks weren't laying yet. Since our houses are only about 20 minutes apart by car, you would think ducks from the same clutch and parent stock would be laying at the same time. Yet I had eggs from my girls and she didn't. It all came down to a matter of light.

My home is located in a flat area with plenty of sunshine. She is on the side of a mountain. There are lots of spots in my duck's run that have sun at any time of the day. You can often see them move their napping spots to take total advantage of the winter light. Her late day light is limited by the giant pile of rocks known to the rest of the world as Pikes Peak. Plus I also use a bit of technology to give the girls that extra boost of light they need to lay in Winter.

I use a simple solar shed light or a rechargeable flashlight each night when we lock the ducks up for the night. The light stays on for about 2 hours before the battery drains and gives them just enough light to get an early start on Spring laying. They still usually take January off from any egg laying even with that extra bit of light, but I don't begrudge them the vacation time.

People do use even more artificial lighting to keep peak egg production all year round, but this comes at a price. The number of eggs a hen can lay is set at hatching. If you keep them laying all year round as a youngsters, they will not be laying much when they get older. A drop off in production is normal after about 3 or 4 years, but ducks can still lay pretty consistently when they are 8 or even older. Especially if you have high egg production breeds like Welsh Harlequins, Khaki Campbells or Indian Runners. It just isn't going to be an egg every day like they laid when they were young. Make them produce all the time in their youth and you will be lucky to get any eggs when they are seniors.

The decision to add supplemental lighting is a very individual one. If you are running a large commercial egg facility, even a slight drop in laying leads to a hen being culled. Often that is no more than 2 years. Small scale egg facilities usually give their hens more time. For the back yard bird owner who knows their hens on a first name basis, keeping their feathered friend happy and healthy for a lifetime is going to be the prime consideration. If you don't mind feeding non-productive animals through the winter and don't desperately need the eggs that time of year, consider giving your girls at least some down time to keep them laying through the years.

The morning egg hunt

The girls have started to lay more consistently and I think everyone is just about done molting. I have been getting 3 or 4 eggs per day, but I have to work for those eggs. I never know where they are going to be. Two perfectly comfy dog houses converted to duck use just don't seem to be good enough. Instead, the eggs were either in the middle of the pen trampled and full of muck, or they were hidden behind on of the duck huts.

The only reason I knew about the hidden nest behind the duck hut is because I went out to the pen early one day and came up one duck short at morning roll call. Then I heard some soft quacking and squeaking. Abby had climbed between the huts and hollowed out a nice little spot in the hay against the back wall of the pen. Ducks may look fat and fluffy, but they CAN squeeze in to inconvenient areas if they want to. In fact, if you go in to any bird pen and think to yourself "what would be the most difficult, inconvenient, and seemingly impossible spot for those silly birds to lay eggs?" and that is where your eggs will be.

I was getting tired of rearranging the pen every morning trying to find hidden eggs or washing off duck mud and decided to borrow an old trick used by chicken owners. You put a fake egg where you want your birds to lay. Apparently this tricks the critters in to thinking that particular spot is a perfectly safe place to lay eggs. After all, there is an egg right there! Of course it exploits the birds inability to count or do a quick material analysis....

Many people use golf balls, but I actually had polished stone eggs used for decoration. As a decor item, all they did was gather dust, so using them as decoy eggs seemed like a much more practical use.

It's been over a week since I put those stone eggs out in one of the duck houses and it is working like a charm. Besides being unable to count or tell egg shell from stone, egg color doesn't seem to matter to them either. They just assume since eggs are already in the nest, this must be "THE spot", so no more lifting up houses and digging through straw. Thanks to all the chicken owners for the great idea.