August 26, 2013

Double-digging Dividends

The big double dig is paying off! Back in October of 2012, I started a double digging project, inspired by reading John Jeavons' book How To Grow More Vegetables. The goal was to improve the soil in my garden beds and hopefully increase veggie production. It was a lot of work, and even though I knew I wouldn't see the results for many months, I opted to broaden my experiment and double dig several more beds.

Ten months later I can confidently say it was well worth it. The beds I worked using Jeavons' method are paying huge dividends now, in the form of super lush, healthy and productive plants. Take the pepper bed, for example.

Maddie in front of Gourmet pepper plants

This is the same bed pictured mid-dig in the post linked above. My daughter is standing in front of Gourmet variety bell pepper plants that are 5 1/2 feet tall from soil level to the top of the plant. These plants are absolutely loaded with big, beautiful (and tasty!) peppers. This is the third year we've grown this particular variety and never have the plants been this healthy and happy.

I might think it was a fluke except that the chard I planted in this bed in the fall right after double digging also grew ridiculously well and was much more productive and huge than any other chard I've ever grown.

3" chard rib is thick as a brick, literally

It's a lot of work, but I will definitely be double digging more garden beds this fall. I figure if I just do a few each year, eventually I will get the whole garden done. The payoff is just too great not to do it!

August 22, 2013

Blossom End Bumps

Family vacations, volunteer commitments, preparing for an increase in work this school year, and of course lots of garden tasks (!) all have contributed to zero blog posts so far this summer. That's not what I'd planned, but that's the way it is. Fortunately, it doesn't take long to post a very short entry with a picture or two that gives a flavor of summer on the Banyan's End homestead, so that's where I'm going to start. No attempts at long and comprehensive posts (who wants to read those anyway, right?), just a few pictures of interesting stuff happening on the mini farm.

So...take a look at these mutant alien tomatoes I just plucked from my Siletz tomato vine:

Siletz tomato with mini-tomato growths

Siletz tomato past its prime

Kinda creepy, huh? Most of the tomatoes coming off this plant have weird, protruding growths that look like extra tomatoes bursting from within the original. Not all are quite as extreme as the pictures, but even the "normal" looking tomatoes have a teeny hint of a growth. The strangest looking tomatoes are typically hidden deep in the middle of the vine. My theory is that the alien growths start emerging when the fruits are past prime picking time. Because they're hard to spot in the thick foliage of the Siletz plant--which doesn't get pruned because it's a determinate variety--I miss them when harvesting and they stay on the vine way too long.

Siletz is supposed to be tasty, nearly seedless and "one of the most reliable slicing tomatoes you can grow" according to Territorial Seed Company. That hasn't been my experience so far here in Davis, but I'm willing to try again one more year. I did transplant this one a bit later than my other tomato plants, so that could be it. Or, maybe they just do better in Oregon. Anybody else out there tried growing Siletz in the Central Valley?

May 27, 2013

Tour de Cluck 2013 FAQ

Wow, what a day! We had so much fun participating as coop hosts on this year's Tour de Cluck! About 500 visitors toured our urban homestead between 10am and 3pm on Saturday, almost all arriving by bike and a fair number sporting creative chicken costumes and accessories.

An east Davis neighbor and his friends

Lucas Frerichs and Jake & Ed Clemens arrive by pedicab

Five hundred people over the course of five hours averages out to about 25 new people in the yard every 15 minutes. That's a LOT of people! During the busiest times, the yard was so packed I could hardly see Mr. English through the crowd. He and I stationed ourselves in the backyard and answered questions about the garden, coop and chickens. In the front yard, the two grandmas punched ticket maps and managed bike traffic, and the kids and their friends disinfected tour participants' shoes.

Maddie and friends manning the sanitation station

Visitors ask questions and take pictures

You can imagine the number of questions generated by that many people curious about chickens, gardening and green living in general. It's obviously impossible to answer all of their questions, but we did our best. For those who may have come to the yard and not gotten their question answered, or for those who weren't on the Tour and are curious about the setup, here are some of Saturday's most frequently asked questions and some answers.

Tour de Cluck 2013 Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Who designed and built the coop, and how long did it take?

A. Mr. English and my dad built the coop in the spring of 2011. Together they have intermediate to advanced carpentry skills and many years of experience building stuff, and they made pretty quick work of the coop (2-3 full days.) The coop was designed by a guy named John Carr in Portland, OR who calls this model The Garden Coop and sells the plans for $20. Mr. English and my dad were super happy they bought the plans--even though they have the skills to have built something similar on their own--because it simplified the whole process a lot.

Mr. English and Opa building the coop

Q. Isn't that a lot of money to spend on a chicken coop?

A. Even using "oops" paint, branches for roosts, old deck piers and other items we had on hand, the coop materials still cost just under $1,000 (redwood and hardware cloth are both pricey and accounted for the majority of that cost.) Some people feel like that's extravagant. For us it's a matter of priorities. Some families spend $1,000 on one AKC-registered dog or a fancy television, or they spend twice that amount eating at restaurants and buying Starbucks coffee each year. Most families our size have two cars; we choose instead to have one car, lots of bikes and money leftover to spend on things like a secure, sturdy chicken coop.

Q. How much time do you spend maintaining the garden and chickens, and how do you have enough time to do it?

A. This is a tough question to answer, since it varies a lot depending on the time of year and also because we don't really keep track. A good guess is probably an average of about an hour a day, not including special projects. During the building up phase it probably took a lot longer, but now that all the beds are established, the coop, greenhouse and fencing are built, and we have certain routines and systems in place, it takes less time than you'd think to maintain it all. Again, it's a matter of priorities. The average American watches over 4 hours of television a day; we haven't owned a TV for ten years, so I spend some of those hours tinkering in the garden instead, since that's a relaxing activity for me.

Q. Do your kids help out?

A. Yes! Between school, extracurricular activities and play, they don't have tons of time to help in the garden, but they are definitely interested and they always help with planting and harvesting. They especially love the chickens and often help collect the eggs and let the birds out of the coop in the morning or close their door at night. Most important to us is that they are growing up knowing it's not only possible, but also fun and rewarding to keep chickens and grow much of your own produce.

Charlie harvesting lemons

Maddie clipping arugula

Q. Do you ever have to go to the grocery store?

A. Of course we do! You don't see a rice paddy or a wheat field back here, do you? There are many things we don't grow and still need to pick up at the farmers market or grocery store, including grains, avocados, artichokes, celery, and asparagus to name just a few. It is true, however, that our grocery trips are much more limited because of the large garden and that we eat almost entirely with the seasons when it comes to fruits and veggies.

Q. Can you tell me more about your raised beds?

A. Most of our food is grown in raised beds and that's partly because we can control the soil better, but mostly because we're dog people and anything that's not in a raised bed will potentially be dug up or trampled by the dog. We have about 25 raised planting areas in the yard and our preferred size is a 4 x 8 foot bed made of Douglas Fir. If you buy three 8-ft long boards (12" high), you need make only one saw cut and you can have a new bed built for about $25 and in about 30 minutes. (We got this idea from our friends Nick and Erica at Northwest Edible Life; lots more info & cost comparisons here.)

Q. What are those (pointing at the espaliered apple trees)?

A. Those are a Fuji apple tree and a Granny Smith apple tree espaliered (fancy word for trained to grow in a particular shape) along a concrete reinforcing wire fence. They are regular apple varieties, not dwarf, and to maintain them on an espalier requires three or four quick prunings each year (they grow fast!) Can't tell you anything yet about yield, since they are still young and not yet producing fruit.

Espaliered apple trees

Got more questions? Let us know in the comments below and we'll answer them there, or send an email to saskia dot mills at gmail dot com.

May 17, 2013

Tour de Cluck 2013 is Next Saturday

Davis is one of a growing number of towns hosting tours of backyard chicken coops and gardens, and the city's fourth annual Tour de Cluck, a Bicycle Chicken Coop Crawl will take place next Saturday, May 25th. The Tour is one of the main fundraisers for Yolo Farm to Fork, which educates the public about the value of a farm-to-table community food system. Our family has cycled the tour all three prior years and I wrote a blog post about last year's event. This is the first year we will NOT ride the coop crawl, but that's only because our coop and garden will be featured on the tour this year and we'll instead be happily chatting with the hundreds of folks who come to our mini farm throughout the day to check out the setup and meet the birds.

The Fowlery at Banyan's End

A handful of tickets are still left for the Tour. Act fast if you're interested, though, because as of this morning there were only about 40 tickets left (of the 700 printed) and those will go fast. If in fact they are still available at this writing, you'll find them either at the Davis Food Co-op or starting at 8am tomorrow morning at the Tour de Cluck table at the Davis Farmers Market.

If you can't get a ticket, there are lots of other activities in addition to the actual bicycle tour. Many of them will happen next Saturday at Central Park, where the Tour will kick off with a chicken-related art auction, "Courage to Cluck" contest, fowl food vendors, raffle ticket event and other things. Check the Tour de Cluck facebook page for details. If you already have your tickets, come say "hi" when you get to stop #2!

April 9, 2013

Fleeting Fungi

One great thing about garden paths mulched with woodchips is watching all the fascinating stuff that emerges from the mulch after a rain. When the woodchips have come from a variety of sources, it makes the fungal show all the more interesting. Most of what appears is stuff I've never encountered before (like last May's dog vomit slime mold, for example.) Last week's rain caused another round of fungal blooming, and we got out the camera to document the short-lived display. Having absolutely no idea what the scientific names of any of these fungi are, I made up my own names--either way, they're beautiful and fun to watch.

The first one I spotted looked like something you might find in a tiny, magical fairy garden:

Delicate fairy mushroom

Just a few hours later, however, it had transformed into something decidedly less cute:

Drippy, yucky mushroom

Two batches of caramel-colored mushrooms that sprouted closer to the chicken area at first looked like they might be mini and regular versions of the same variety, but it's been a couple of days since these shots were taken and the mini ones never got any bigger, while the larger ones got even larger.

Clutch-of-eggs mushrooms

Caramel laced mushroom

 Then there was this understated, grey-hatted mushroom:

Slim-stemmed with a grey top

Rounding out this week's fungal extravaganza was this fat, traditional-looking mushroom which popped up in the front yard leaf litter:

A typical toadstool

That's it for variety so far this month, but as long as we're talking fungus, the woodchips produced an entirely different set of fungal fruit back in drippy December and while I did capture them on camera, I never managed to post them to the blog. Here they are now:

Tiny cup saucer-shaped mushrooms in a potted plant

There were lots of these mini toasted marshmallow types

This one reminds me of a sugared candy of some sort

These near-microscopic fungi were clinging to the gutter

Finally, just for a spot of bright color amidst all these neutral tones, here's a picture of a mushroom Mr. English photographed not in our yard, but up at Cold Canyon while on a hike in December:

Cold Canyon mushroom, next to the creek

Some of these things are so teeny and fleeting--pushing through the mulch mid-morning only to melt or transform over the course of just a few hours--that you really have to pay close attention to find them. I've discovered that I love finding new (to me) types of fungi in the yard, so this probably won't be the last time you see them on this blog.

April 3, 2013

Planting Spuds

There may be only two ways to say the word "potato", but there are countless different ways to plant them in your garden and there's still time to do it in Davis this spring. Local farmers plant their potato crops in March and April, (and sometimes February if it's not too wet.) The seed potatoes I ordered back in December from Territorial Seed Co. only arrived last week; I planted two pounds on March 27th and the other two pounds are still waiting to be planted, hopefully tomorrow.

Seed potatoes

If you still want to plant potatoes you have some options. Locally, Davis Lumber (Ace) had just a few packages left as of this weekend and those were mostly Russets, which aren't the best choice for our area. (Redwood Barn had sold out.) If you don't mind ordering from a catalog, Territorial Seed is a good source, as is Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, out of Placerville. Peaceful Valley still has lots to choose from here. Yellow-fleshed types do best in our region. As a last resort, you could try planting grocery store or farmers' market spuds, but those aren't guaranteed disease free and some are sprayed to inhibit sprouting, so I wouldn't recommend going that route if you can avoid it.

Once you have your seed potatoes in hand, evaluate the size of the potatoes and the number of eyes on each one. Small potatoes (golf ball size) can be planted whole. Larger potatoes can be cut into smaller pieces as long as each piece has two or three "eyes" on it. The eyes are where the plant will start to sprout. Some people like to cure the cut potatoes for a few days to reduce the chance they will rot in the ground before sprouting, but it's not necessary.

Note the several "eyes" on this piece of potato

Potatoes can be grown in so many different ways it's impossible to list them all here. If space is a concern, a grow bag is a good choice. Having grown them in raised beds, directly in the ground, in burlap sacks, and in towers made out of tomato cages ringed with flexible fencing, I've discovered I prefer raised beds, so that's where the Yukon Golds went last week.

Seed potato pieces in a trench in a raised bed

Whatever the container, pick a spot with plenty of sunlight, or you'll end up with spindly, unproductive plants. Place the potatoes on top of at least a few inches of soil and cover them with about four inches of compost/planting mix. Make sure to plant the pieces with the eyes facing up since you want the sprouts to come up through the soil. Also make sure there's space in your bed to hill up soil or compost around the plants as they grow throughout the season. If you don't do that, you may end up with green potatoes due to exposure to the light. Finally, throw some mulch over the top of the newly planted spuds to protect the surface of the soil, reduce weeds, and retain moisture. The plants will have no problem coming up right through the straw.

Finished potato bed mulched with rice straw

There are so many reasons to grow your own potatoes. They're a great crop for getting kids excited about gardening. To a kid, sticking your arm into the soil up to your elbow, rummaging around in the dirt and pulling out handfuls of potatoes seems downright magical. It's also fun to experiment with growing varieties that you just aren't going to find in the standard grocery store. Of course, most store bought potatoes won't compare to the flavor you get with a freshly dug spud from your own garden.

Seed potatoes may seem expensive compared to your typical packet of garden seeds, but under the right conditions, one pound of seed potatoes can produce as many as ten to fifteen pounds of potatoes. I often have trouble finding reasonably priced organic potatoes in the local grocery stores, so it's nice to have a homegrown supply at a fraction of the market cost.

The good news is, if you don't have time to get any potatoes in the ground within the next two weeks, there are varieties that can be summer planted in Davis, or you can wait until fall and plant a round of potatoes then. Give it a try!

February 28, 2013

Budget Chicken Tractor

Earlier this month I found myself engaged in what has become a February ritual around here over the last ten years: kneeling in the middle of the crushed granite garden path trying to yank all the little clumps of fescue out of the ground before the warm temperatures cause them to go to seed and guarantee next year's spring weed crop. Suddenly I thought, "Wait a second...why am I doing this? I have chickens now and this is their job!"

In fact, the chickens have done a fantastic job keeping their fenced part of the yard free of the usual spring fescue carpet. I haven't seen any green weeds pop up at all, which tells me they must have gotten all the seeds before they even had a chance to germinate. Problem is, we can't let the chickens free range in the other part of the yard because they will hop into my veggie beds and eat all the tasty produce, therefore they haven't had a chance to scour the rest of the yard for weed seeds. The solution? Build a chicken tractor out of scrap supplies and use it to confine the chickens to the foot path where they will eat fescue to their heart's delight and do my weeding job for me at the same time.

There are endless design possibilities when it comes to chicken tractors. Since free sounded really good to us, we decided to let our scrap materials dictate the design. What we had on hand was a bunch of four-foot-tall green temporary fencing, lots of 1x2 redwood boards that had been part of an old patio cover, and enough random hardware (hinges, handles, etc) to finish the job. Mr. English used basic carpentry skills and tools to put together a box with a simple door at one end, and the whole thing took just a couple of hours to make.

Cutting the boards to size

Adding braces at the corners to strengthen the tractor

Extra long top rails serve as handles for moving the tractor

Basic door swings open at the end

Bellatrix and Professor McGonagall earning their keep

So far so good! At first the chickens weren't too keen on being in the tractor, but they got used to it quickly and have almost completely taken care of the weed problem on the path in the picture above. Even though they're only in there for short periods of time (less than an hour), we added a water dish so their needs are met. We also added a simple hook latch on either end of the door, because we discovered the chickens could push their way out if they really wanted to.

We've found we need to pay attention to laying times--each time we've put Bellatrix in the tractor she has let us know within a half hour that she wants out to go lay an egg. It's best if the chickens go in after they've produced the day's egg, so they don't get stressed about it.

Can't wait to move this thing to other parts of the yard, so the chickens can take over even more of the weeding chores!

February 13, 2013

February is All About Seeds

Aaaack! How is it already the end of the second week of February? The fact that my most recent blog post title has the word Christmas in it is evidence enough that I've been in a state of semi-hibernation for the last couple of months, at least when it comes to the blog and only slightly less so when it comes to the urban homestead. But suddenly it's nearly 70 degrees out and spring seems to be right around the corner (or already here)--it's time to emerge from the cave of December and January and get back to work on the mini farm in earnest.

I haven't been a total slacker this winter, though. I did manage to browse the January seed catalogs, which if I'm honest is not really work and is actually just an excuse to salivate over new veggie varieties and dream about a bigger gardening space. I even got my seed order taken care of and a couple of seed trays sown. Incidentally, there's still plenty of time to sow seeds for your summer garden in Davis. If you don't want to wait for a catalog, just grab some seed at one of the local nurseries or even at the Davis Food Coop, which sells Redwood Seed Company (Tehama County, CA) seeds. Or, you could attend the Spring Seed & Culture Swap hosted by the Davis Seed Savers Alliance this Sunday from 11am-2pm, at Sunwise Co-op in Village Homes.

Catalogs from my favorite seed houses

Box of summer seeds, some old and some new

This time of year I'm very thankful for my greenhouse. Before it was installed I started seeds on the countertop in the laundry room, with great results but at the expense of space available to complete basic household chores. It's nice not to be in that situation anymore. An indoor light setup might mean seeds germinate a bit faster than they do in the greenhouse, which still gets pretty cold at night, but I'm happy to wait an extra week for germination if it means my laundry room is available for, well...laundry. Besides, on these sunny days the greenhouse gets much warmer than the inside of the house, about 85 degrees today, so maybe there's no lag time in germination after all.

So far I've sown only the real heat lovers--peppers, tomatoes and eggplant--plus a bunch of flowers and another round of lettuces.

Seeds started in the greenhouse

"Gourmet" variety of bell peppers, already germinated

Next on the seed-starting list will be lots more flowers, more beets, spinach and chard, and this summer's crop of basil, other herbs, cucumbers, melons and summer squash. Charlie took charge of the radishes and sprinkled those throughout the garden last week, right after another round of carrots went in. Corn and beans will go directly in the ground in April, and I'll direct sow winter squash (grown in summer in spite of the name) shortly after that.

Winter crops have been trucking right along these past few months without any help from me. Spinach, chard and kale plants are now thriving and supplying us with the raw materials for hearty soups and salads. Merida overwintering carrots are sizing up nicely, shelling peas are thriving and will be harvested in April, and several beds are filled with the all-important onion and garlic crops that will be picked and cured from May (onions) to June or July (garlic). These goodies are spread throughout the front, side and back yard growing areas, but here's a peek at what the back looks like this month:

Backyard raised beds (click for a larger version)

One thing I experimented with last fall was Crimson Clover as a cover crop. I'd never grown "green manure" before, and I've been happy with the results so far. The bed in the left foreground in the above picture was full of lush clover until I cut it last month and turned it into the soil (I guess I did something in the garden this winter.) Now it's full of decaying organic matter and a fresh blast of nitrogen, and will be ready to plant with seedlings soon.

All in all, February feels good, in spite of the moment of oh-my-gosh-it's-February! panic. I feel like an expectant mother, obsessively watching my seed trays for signs of newborn sprouts or babying my still-emerging pepper seedlings with afternoon mistings from the water bottle and constant management of greenhouse temperatures.

How is February going for you?