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?