Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Greenhouse Growing Update

You may remember that we built a new greenhouse last Fall.

It came in handy this spring as we used it to raise a lot of seedlings. The main reason I wanted a greenhouse however was to have the ability to grow salad crops all winter long like Eliot Coleman teaches in his new book, The Winter Harvest Handbook.

It doesn't have to be heated, but it does need raised growing beds inside to grow the crops in. I wasn't able to finish the raised beds when I built the rest of it last year, so I got them ready this September.

The plan was to grow many perfect little seedlings inside under my giant light stand. That didn't work out because we had a huge flood in our basement right about the time I should have been starting the seeds. Instead I was busy tearing up wet carpet and drywall.

The light stand was still in that picture, but eventually it was dismantled. It will be put back together in the garage. (I'll post more about that and about the basement renovation later.)

Anyway, instead of starting seeds inside and planting seedlings in the greenhouse, I direct seeded in the greenhouse growing beds.

I planted lettuce, spinach, oriental greens, radishes, carrots and beets. We have been able to eat the radishes and some of the lettuce so far. This is what the growing beds look like now:

As you can see, direct sowing caused my lettuce bed to have bare spots and many of the plants are too close together. We tried to thin them but they are still bunched together. Much of it is still growing well. I still want to try to fill the gaps with new plants. I'm new at this, so I don't know if that will work.

It is still above freezing during the days here, but soon I will have to add a 2nd layer of plastic over the beds with small hoops or cold frames. I know I can keep the veggies from freezing. I just don't know how much the growth will slow as the day lengths are getting so much shorter.

No matter how much or how little success we have this Fall/Winter, I am having fun giving it a try. And the fresh lettuce is tasting real good!

I hope it lasts all winter!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

I want to build another chicken coop!

Our chickens are now giving us a good amount of eggs. We only have five hens and are averaging four eggs per day.


Recently I posted an update on our chickens and the coop that we built for them. In that post, I told you that I love having chickens far more than I expected. We have never kept chickens before, so we started out small. Now I'm wishing that we had more but I only built a small coop. We could fit a few more birds in there, but the best option would be to build a 2nd coop. Last year I had trouble finding info on how to build a chicken coop so I made with without plans. It worked out pretty well, but I think I can build a coop faster with some good plans. Again, I've been searching for info on building an easy chicken coop, and I think I may have found it!

Its a ebook simply titled Building A Chicken Coop. It promises easy step-by-step printable plans for coops of all different sizes. It also covers things that are not as usual to find in chicken books such as what the cheapest and best materials to build with are. The first line of their promo sounds great: "Discover How To Easily Build An Attractive And Affordable Chicken Coop That  Protects Your Chickens From Predators,Maintains Their Health And Delivers More Delicious Eggs". Wow, that covers all of the important stuff! I'm excited to check this out.

I can't wait to build something new for the chickens so we can get a bunch more in the spring. In the meantime, our five are enjoying the new grazing pen I made for them.



My current coop will have to do until I have time to read Building A Chicken Coop and decide which coop plan to follow.

If you want to see for yourself more about the book I'm talking about, you can Click Here!

Hopefully we will have a mild winter and I can get started building a new coop before spring. I'll let you know how it goes!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pollan's Botany of Desire comes to TV and DVD!

Many gardeners are familiar with author Michael Pollan, especially for his acclaimed books, The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. But do you remember his book The Botany of Desire from 2001?

Well now The Botany of Desire has been made into a 2 hour television special to be aired tomorrow night, October 28th on PBS.


I was able to view an advance DVD copy of it, and I recommend that all gardening and food enthusiasts tune in. The premise of both the movie and the book are that we humans "think" we control plants and use them to satisfy our own desires, when actually the plants are controlling us. About the film, Michael Pollan says, "We don't give nearly enough credit to plants. They've been working on us, they've been using us, for their own purposes".

Pollan and producer/director Michael Schwarz takes us on a beautiful voyage around the world to get an up-close and personal look at the history of how four very important plants have crossed paths with mankind. They profile the Apple, the Tulip, Marijuana and the Potato.

Watching this riveting account of plants prompted me to get The Botany of Desire book as well. The movie does a good job of capturing the essence of Pollan's original work, but of course the book goes into even more detail. If you like the movie and haven't read the book, I urge to to pick up a copy.

What the film accomplishes that the book can't is visual in nature. The photography is beautiful and illustrates the growing processes well. It is also nice to see Pollan and other experts talking instead of just reading quotes. The film is broken up into four half hour segments, each concentrating on one of the four plants. It wouldn't surprise me to see it later aired as a mini series in half hour segments. There is no official word about that. As of now the only airing is slated for October 28th at 8:00 p.m. on PBS stations. After that, it is scheduled for DVD and Blu-ray release on November 3rd. Here is what the DVDs will look like:

The DVD is a great addition to your video library, but you have a golden opportunity to see it for free tomorrow night!

Watch the special and then come back here and let me know what you thought of it. Do you agree with me that it is visually beautiful, interesting and informative? Does Pollan make you think differently about your relationship with the plants in your garden? Let me know your thoughts!

Thanks - Marc

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Update on our Chickens and the Coop

I just realized that I have never posted about our adult chickens on Garden Desk! That's crazy because we absolutely love our chickens. I never knew how much fun they would be, and the eggs are delicious!
We did manage a post back in April about raising our chicks. We raised the chicks in our garage while we built our outside coop. We built the coop mostly out of wood that we already had from an old deck that I took apart a couple years ago. The coop construction took much longer than anticipated but they have been in it for three or four months now. here it is:

We were able to put it right in front of the garden and beside the greenhouse.

When we would read about keeping chickens, it seemed that many people let them roam around during the day. Around here experienced farmers were telling us to watch out for the many predators, some even during the day. We have to watch out for hawks, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, opossums, weasels, rats and the neighbor's dogs. Many people told us that we wouldn't be able to keep our chickens alive.

With this in mind, we tried to build a very secure coop. The building that they sleep in is in the very center, up on stilts with no outside walls. The small window openings have two layers of wire over them and we even put wire mesh down under the floor boards.

The rest of the coop is all under tin roofing with two kinds of wire around the perimeter. The wire is also buried in concrete at the bottom about 18 inches under ground! The door has a second latch about a foot off the ground so nothing can squeeze in.

If anything does manage to sneak in during the night, they shouldn't be able to get in the wood building. The chickens have a small door that they use during the day.

They go inside at dusk and then I lock their door.

Here they are coming into their building:

The other wall is hinged for us to get inside for cleaning. It also has the nest boxes built into it. When closed it also has a heavy duty latch. Here is what it looks like from the outside:

Here is the nestbox part of the inside:

 Nest Box

The chickens' main feeder and water hang from the building under the nest boxes.

All summer we fed them plenty of fruits and vegetables, an occasional worm or grasshopper and grass that we pulled. Recently, I thought they should get to graze in the grass on their own. In order to keep them safe while grazing, I constructed this crude grazing pen:

Grazing Pen1

I can lock them in if I want to clean out their coop, or I can connect the two units with portable chicken wire sides and top that roll out of the way when not in use. You can see what I mean from this angle:

Grazing Pen 2

The chickens love grazing in their new pen in the evenings. At nightfall, they go back inside to their roosts and I disconnect the pen and lock them safely in their coop.

The chicken coop and grazing pen are working out pretty well, especially since I built it without any real plans. The chickens have adapted well to it and are laying eggs almost daily now. As good as getting fresh organic eggs is, I think my favorite part about our chickens is that they are super friendly. They are more like pets than farm animals. They actually enjoy being held and get excited when they see us.


Raising chickens is great! As long as winter goes well, I hope to get more next spring. Of course then I'll have to build another chicken coop!

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Accidental Pumpkins?

Look what we got from the garden - 2 very nice pumpkins.


Actually, they grew behind the garden and actually, we didn't even plant them. We didn't do so well managing our compost pile this summer. Instead of turning it, we just kept adding to it. A lot of plants grew out of the compost pile, including volunteer pumpkins!


I guess they came from last year's Jack-o-lantern.  Pretty funny, but we'll take it. As a compost enthusiast, this is kind of embarrassing. I even used to teach seminars on how to compost and how to build various compost bins.

Harvesting these pumpkins last week made me get serious about building new compost bins this weekend. I now have two sets of double-sided pallet-made compost bins. I will clean up this mess and start new in the new bins. I will take pictures and post them soon. In the meantime we will enjoy our compost pumpkins!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Easy Potato Harvest!

We grew a few different kinds of potatoes this year and in different ways. Recently we harvested our red potatoes which were grown in the most interesting way. This harvest was done with just my bare hands and I didn't even get very dirty! Here is one of the plants pulled up with the tubers underneath:


 These were grown in a small cinder block raised bed. The growing medium was not dirt. It was a soil-less mix of peat moss, rice hulls and other organic material. Since this medium is so loose, you can harvest these potatoes by just reaching into to mix.

It is pretty hard to show you what I mean in words or pictures, so here's a first for GardenDesk - a video!

It really is that easy. My favorite thing about harvesting in this way is that it is easy to steal away new potatoes any time while they're growing. I didn't get a video of that earlier in the year, but below is a good simulation. Ignore that the plant has died back. This technique worked the same way while the plants were growing.

I just reached in every so often and took a new potato without harming the plant.

So if this mix is so great, why isn't my whole garden like this? First of all, it is a bit expensive. More importantly, The mix dries out quickly and is really hard to keep watered while the plants are growing.

I actually found this mix last year and thought maybe it would be good to have many beds like this. Before buying too much, I conducted a side-by-side test comparing this mix with my regular raised bed of garden soil, compost and peat. I grew one tomato plant, one pepper plant and four cucumber plants in each 4 foot square bed. Here were the results - this first picture is early in the season:


At harvest time, it looked like this:


My normal soil is on the left, the soil-less mix is on the right. Both sides yielded about the same amount of produce, but the new mix dried out too much. I think you can tell that the cucumber vines in the back were a bit smaller. So last year I was a bit disappointed with the new mix.

This year I began dismantling the cinder blocks but ended up keeping the new mix side of the bed. I planted the potatoes on a whim and now this mix has new value to me. I think I will reserve it for root crops from now on. Maybe I will move it into the greenhouse. 


These reds are oh so delicious! For only 4 feet of growing, I can't complain with the amount we got, and harvesting as shown in the video is so easy. Forget the pitch fork! What fun. 

Monday, September 28, 2009

Old Friends, Yellow Tomatoes and Salsa!

My tomatoes didn't perform as well as I had hoped this year. We had plenty to eat fresh, but not enough to freeze or can any. There just weren't many tomatoes on each plant. I'll admit that I grew too many different heirloom varieties with too few plants of any one kind. There were never very many tomatoes of the same kind ripe at any given time.

Just as I thought we would not have any fresh garden salsa or spaghetti sauce this year, we ran into a dear old friend at the grocery. She only grew one kind of tomato and had a gazillion of them! She invited us over to pick some. Here is what we picked:

They were organically grown, and as you can see from the picture, they were yellow tomatoes. Could we still make salsa without red tomatoes? We were up to the challenge.

These friends are a generation older than me and were neighbors of mine growing up. More summer days as a boy were spent playing on their farm than at my own house, so it was great talking with them and catching up on how each other's families were doing. I think their gardens were the first I ever saw as a youngster. What used to be an acre or more of vegetables is now just a small plot, but they are still better gardeners with that tiny garden than I am with a larger one. Their 6 tomato plants produced far more than my 30 plants! That is a bit humbling for me, but I was so glad to get to see them (and glad to get the tomatoes!) We said our goodbyes and headed home to process the tomatoes!

It was getting late in the day already, so the whole family pitched in to make to work go faster. My daughters did a great job getting the skins off the tomatoes and cutting them up.

Renee and I mixed their bright yellow tomatoes in a large pot with the other salsa ingredients. It instantly smelled delicious. It didn't look quite as appetizing. The other ingredients changed the color to an orange-brown.

We canned 10 pints of this odd salsa as well as a few pints and a few quarts of yellow spaghetti sauce, which looked equally as strange.

The only thing that didn't look odd was one quart of plain tomatoes that we will use in chili.

That jar looked fairly pretty, but more resembled canned peaches than tomatoes. I wish we could have canned more of the plain tomatoes - now I'm sounding greedy.

It was quite a blessing to get these tomatoes in the first place, and to get to visit with the farmers who grew them.

By the way, although it looks odd, the salsa tastes great!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fall in the Garden

Now that it is officially Autumn in my garden, I have taken my Summer blinders off and noticed that it actually is beginning to look like Fall.

First Fall Foto 

The trees in the background are just beginning to turn colors. Several of the beds are empty now after their residents have been harvested. The white row cover in the middle is protecting new fall cabbage from those awful cabbage moths that produce the even more awful cabbage worms that I struggled with last Fall. Several beds have been re-seeded with lettuce and spinach.

All that's left to harvest from the Summer's bounty is sweet potatoes and the last of the green beans, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers. Soon it will be time to turn our attention to the Fall/Winter crops in the  greenhouse.

I guess I must admit, Fall is actually here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Harvesting Vermicompost (Worm Castings)

Back in March, we began raising red worms in our kitchen with our new worm factory.


By April they were already having many little worm babies. We kept feeding them all summer and adding trays for them to expand into. We started with 1000 worms and by now I estimate that we have over 5000! They are hard to take pictures of because they don't like the light, but here is my best shot:


The best thing about raising worms inside is that they give you an easy way to recycle your kitchen vegetable scraps. They break down the veggies and create the best plant fertilizer on Earth - vermicompost!


Once again, this is not an easy thing to photograph. Here is a closer look at a smaller amount:


They look like coffee grounds but have no oder at all.  I was able to get quite a bit of these plant nutritious worm castings from the bottom tray which I will add to our new greenhouse growing beds.

After harvesting this compost, I created a new bedding environment for the worms to move into just like I detailed at the bottom of this previous post.

We really like having these worms. Have you ever raised worms or considered it? I recommend keeping worms to any avid gardener!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Oh Deer!

Twice now we have looked out the window and were surprised to see three young deer in our backyard. They eat a little from the tomatoes, a few leaves from the apple trees, and then just walk around aimlessly.

This one is looking at the tomatoes.

This one is leaving the apple tree.

I wonder if they lost their mother who should still be guiding them. You can still see their spots and they seem lost.

The funniest thing about their tour of the yard is that both times they have been very curious about the chickens. They stare at the coop and the chickens inside with puzzled looks.

They don't seem to be afraid of anything except when the chickens flap their wings. Both times the deer walked around a bit and then disappeared into the woods. They don't seem to be eating much from the garden.

I just hope they don't come back in the spring and eat everything! They are magnificent animals. For now we are content to just watch them when they come. Next spring will be another story!

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