Sunday, September 29, 2013

Blogs I Follow

Since I'm blogging, I've been asked what blogs and websites do I follow. Well, I'm not a blog fanatic, but there are a few that I check on regularly.

     Jon Katz shares his photography, stories about his farm and animals, and relates the
story of his journey through life. I met Jon years ago at a veterinary convention. For some 
reason I liked this , at that time timid, man and began reading his books. I've been
following his stories for years. 
     Leigh maintains an enjoyable story of her farm projects and life. Plus her site has 
dozens of links to other sites for more information. 
     I happen to know Sue and Pat, so I can relate to their stories. 
     This blog was recommended by Jon Katz. Jenna relates the ups and downs of trying 
to develop a small farm lifestyle.
     Maria is Jon Katz's wife. She's a fiber artist and posts pictures of her work, plus chats 
about her life with the farm animals.

There are a number that I check in on less frequently, or that my interest with them waxes 
and wanes. But if you have any to recommend, I'm all ears! 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Kitchen Almost Done

We're finally in the homestretch! The past couple of weeks David and I have gotten quite a bit finished. Two last things still to be finished -- installing the "cabinet drawers" and adding all the little doodads (pot hangers, towel rack, decorations, etc). The drawers are on order and will be shipped bumbye  (sometime, who knows when). And the doodads I can work on in the next couple weeks.

So what got done recently?
........ The sink has gotten hooked up and is now functional. It's 99% complete because we haven't installed the new on-demand hot water heater. But everything is in place for it. The cold water works. The drain works. So nice to have a sink right near the stove, rather than having to walk outside. For now I just heat up a pot of water when I do the dishes. Eventually hot water will come via the faucet. Oh, what luxury to look forward to! 
......... The triangular alcove is completed. All trimmed out now. The tiles laid. The grout and wood inlays completed. Looks real nice, if I say so myself. The tiles are handmade by an artistic friend, all originals. It's one of those nice accents to a room, and I love it. 

Bumped out alcove at the end of the kitchen counter. It will be a great place for a plant. 

........ Moveable kitchen table completed. David did a nice job. I wanted a table that would blend into the rest of the design, but be movable. It could be rolled here, there. Importantly it needed to be rolled out of the way to get at anything being stored back in the corner, but Bob also wanted to have it able to be used in the livingroom when needed. Since I had an extra piece of the black granite, David inlaid it in the top, making a nice spot for hot dishes, or to used as a serving cutting board for cheese, etc. 

So it's been a long journey, but the kitchen s finally a reality! 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Gee, how many times have I gotten involved with a project, or made a decision, that in hindsight was a poor choice, to say the least. If my foresight was as good as my hindsight, I'd be doing a lot better! But in each of my flops and failures there is a common denominator --- I start out totally optimistic and convinced that I'm making a good choice. 

When we first moved here I bought various bits of equipment to clear the overgrown brush that couldn't do the job. Then there's the time I chose a paint color that turned the bedroom into a nightmare. I recall the time I bought several cases of canned soup that was on sale only to discover we didn't like it. The propane fired "woodstove" was a total and expensive flop. 

Now that I'm thinking about it, there are a few flops that we still talk about ...............

Grow My Own Bananas .... When I first moved here I was entralled by the idea of growing tropical fruits. The most accessible one was bananas. Everybody, but everybody, offered me baby banana trees to plant in my yard. Ah, that should have been a clue. Now, if they had been offering zucchini plants, I would have known what to do -- close the drapes, lock the doors, and hide in the house until they left. But being newly intoxicated on the tropical warmth, I greedily accepted all banana gifts. In the beginning, it was great. Baby banana trees here, there, everywhere. 

Now I've got so many bananas that I feed them to the chickens because I can't even give them away. 

Why in the world do I have so many clumps of bananas? Dang things are everywhere!

Grow All Our Own Food -part 1 .... I truly believed that in Hawaii I would be growing all our own food. I'd garden every morning and reap plenty. I'd can the veggies and fill a pantry. We'd be fat and happy. Based upon my little gardening adventures back in NJ, I calculated that I'd need a rototiller, a cultivator (for weed control), a garden cart, some shovels and forks, a rake, lime, fertilizer, and a couple of truckloads of straw for mulching. I even purchased lots of vegetable and flower seeds in anticipation.
          First problem: head high grass and brush. That stuff was tough as rope and a lot of it had spines and prickles. After struggling to open a small 10x10 area, I was dismayed to see it was loaded with big rocks. I tried another spot that looked lush. More rocks! I checked multiple locations. All rocky! Extremely discouraged, I saw my dream garden melting away.
           Second problem: rocks. I finally concluded that the rocks had to be dug out. Hey, all those beautiful rock walls that I was so familiar with back in New England were built from rocks removed from farm fields. So sure, I could do it too. So I spent many an hour digging out and moving rocks. Being an optimist,  wasn't going to let wall to wall lava defeat me. I'd have my garden yet, though smaller than I had originally dreamed. After much work I finally came up with a nice garden plot about 50' x 100', derocked and well dug. No need for a rototiller yet. Time to plant!!! Not a flop, but it took lots of sweat and sore muscles to make a sliver of the dream come true. 

Grow All our own Food - part 2 ..... NOW the idea of growing food would become a reality! I added lime, fertilizer, planted seeds. Things started to grow. I was so happy. Now I needed the straw mulch. What? $35 a bale? Are you nuts!!!!! I was use to paying $1.50 a small bale, $3 for the big ones. But $35? Well, maybe straw wasn't such a good idea after all. I'd have to do without. Which of course allowed the weeds to grow. I was spending way too much time cultivating each day. And combining the use of the cultivator with the tradewinds resulted in the soil drying out. Which now meant that I needed water for irrigation. Luckily I had a 12,000 gallon tank full of water, but alas no pump or electricity. How to get the water to the garden?  I made do with a garden hose slowly siphoning that water to the garden. But things grew! But not everything. I soon discovered what root knot nematode was. Hadn't a clue before. Then the bugs arrived. Aphids. Whitefly. Stink bug. Scale. Mealy bug. Cabbageworm. Squash borer. Sweet potato maggot. Pickleworm. Fruit flies. My dream garden was a bug buffet! While I was losing the bug battles, in snuck mildew, wilt, anthracnose, scab, to name the few that I could recognize. Plenty more diseaes took their turn hacking apart my dream, chopping me down to size. Um, this wasn't going to be so easy. I finally conceded that I hadn't a clue about how to garden successfully in Hawaii.

Ship Over The Rototiller ..... Pre-arrival, I had dreams of large gardens neatly rototilled. I had one of those hugh Troybilt tillers that was a real workhorse which easily handled my 1/4 acre garden back on the mainland. Surely it could handle a lot more. I also purchased a brand new Mantis tiller thinking it would do nicely to cultivate my dream garden. I was moving to 20 acres that everyone assured me had deep soil and the perfect climate for growing. Well, "deep soil" needed a bit more explanation. Deep yeah, but all that soil was located between lava rocks ranging from the size of golf balls to bigger than basketballs. There wasn't one square foot where a rototiller could be used. Not even a shovel! Maybe a fork, but a pick or o-o bar was a better choice. So the rototiller had been a bad idea and it got sold to help recoup the expense of shipping it here. It took many years of derocking before I dared to purchase another.

Ditch The Cold Weather Gear..... Hey, I'm moving to Hawaii! Land of balmy breezes, beaches, coconut trees. Who needs to ship over sweatshirts, fuzzy socks, warm coats, long pants? We arrived December 15th and promptly froze! I hadn't given it a thought, but when it's 56 degrees outside in the morning, it's also 56 degrees inside the bedroom, livingroom, and worst of all, the bathroom! We instantly drove to Kona and bought a bunch of warm clothing. Leaving warm clothing behind wasn't a good idea. 

Save Money by Raising my Own Eggs .... Looking back, I must have been crazy. Even though eggs cost $3 a dozen in the store, there's no way I could save money by growing my own. But I didn't let reality cross my mind as I ordered chicks (minimum order 24), purchased a feeder and waterer, bought a heat lamp and bulbs, ordered plywood and 2x4s to make a chick pen and the wire fencing for the sides. Adding a bag of chick starter, I now had more financially invested than I'd ever spend buying eggs at the store. But I consoled myself by saying that these eggs would taste better. 
           First problem- electricity. I quickly discovered that a 100 watt lightbulb gobbled up most the power from our feeble fledgling solar system. Now I had to spend more money to rebuild the chick pen to accommodate the newly purchased oil lamp to be used as the heat source. Add two giant bottles of lamp oil to the bill, too. 
           I lost a few chicks to drowning. Go buy different waterer. Lost a few to crowding when the lamp blew out. Go buy a second lamp for insurance. 
           By now the chicks were 8 weeks old and ready for outdoors. Buy 2x4s and chicken wire for a chicken tractor. Yes, I'd wheel their pen around, taking advantage of the grass as feed, and so
recoup some of my expenses so far. Buy a piece of metal roofing for the top because the rains have gotten awfully heavy and frequent. What happened to the sun? Anyway, chicks installed in brand new chicken tractor. One week later, 100% dead chicks and one bloodied happy mongoose. Evidence showed that the mongoose snagged some through the wire sides. The rest he got by digging under the pen and snagging them through the flooring. He only ate one which he pulled through the chicken wire, but killed them all. 

Sigh. Not every idea has been an instant success. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Things That Chickens Do

I got an email in response to the "Sheep Are Stupid" post saying , "Sheep are dumb, but chickens are the really stupidest animal on a farm." Um, might be true. My vote is that sheep are worse than chickens, but its a close call. But again I maintain, it's not that they are stupid, it's just that they think differently from humans. We put them into a human oriented environment then call them dumb when they fail. Philosophy aside........

Baby chicks appear to have far less sense than adults. They'll step into their water bowl and not be able to figure out how to get out again. I've rescued hypothermic chicks, having to dry them off and warm them up. I finally made mesh guards to prevent them from killing themselves. Then the silly chicks would fall asleep atop the mesh, and as they dosed off their necks would drop. Down their little beaks go into the water. None drowned this way, they all woke up. But they never seemed to learn. I switched to a different brand of chick waterer. Still had to make a mesh guard for it. For some reason some of them can't manage to figure out how to step up to get out of the water.

Another thing silly baby chicks do is sleep atop their food. If they happen to be wet from a near drowning, they effectively get breaded in chick food. Chicken nuggets! Ready for the deep fryer. Yum. I learned quickly why chick feeders had covers with head sized holes in them. It's to keep chicks from breading themselves.....and pooping in their food, which is also something they do. If they cover their food in poop, they no longer can see it or find it. They will starve.

Chicks need warmth the first two months. If the heat source happens to die, the chicks will huddle to keep warm. The only problem is that they see nothing wrong with climbing atop adjacent chicks. In quick time, chicks on the bottom get suffocated. For some reason, the guys on bottom put very, very little effort in getting up. They just lay there and take it even if it means they can't breath. I've seen cases where older hens get trampled the same way. Instead of standing up, they just lay there being stood on.

Speaking of "just standing up", hens will get caught under a deep dish or basin and die. Yup. I've seen cases where a lightweight dish basin is used to hold chicken feed. When the pan is just about empty, a hen stepping on its side will cause it to flip over. Just like a box trap, flip-- caught one chicken! Now that hen will lay there forever. She doesn't try to move, walk, or stand up. The pan is plenty light enough for her to stand up, but she never tries. After a few hours the poor hen is wet from her own respiration, then dies of hypothermia. Many a chicken keeper has lost a hen this way.

When it comes to feeding chickens, there's lots of opportunity for entertainment. First, feeding birds tends to be soothing. I enjoy standing there watching the girls scratch and peck for the seeds I throw to them. But have you ever seen the chicken races? Just toss out a worm or a strip of meat. If the hens have never seen it before, they will all crowd around eyeing it for a while. Finally one hen will get brave and give it a tentative peck. Then all hell breaks loose! One grabs the treasure and RUNS. Instantly she is chased by a mob a hens hellbent on stealing the treasure. Snatch. Hen #2 now runs a different direction, the whole mob now chases her. Grab. #3 now has it and runs. By now whatever they have starts falling apart. Various lucky hens get bits and swallow them. In the end, seldom do the original 5-6 hens get a nibble. Now throw a second piece, and it starts all over again! This can go on for a dozen pieces. Occasionally you'll get a hen who figures out that its best to quickly swallow the worm or meat, but more often not. Next day repeat the process and the hens start out from square one again. Even those hens who quickly swallowed yesterday have seemingly forgotten the nifty trick by the next day. It's the chicken races all over again.   :)

Chickens are not above stealing food, nor are they above eating one another. Yes, cannabilistic. If a hen gets a sore spot somewhere, her sisters will promptly see her as a meal and start pecking. Before long the poor hen is eaten. You'd think she'd tried to fend them off. Get into a corner for protection or into a nestbox to get away. No on both ideas. She'll simply stand among the flock and proceed to be pecked to death. 

You'd think nestboxes would make good places to hide. Hens do use them for that, but not to hide for protection from their sisters. They hide to sleep and to lay eggs. One thing I've noticed about hens is that they tend to all want the same nestbox at the same time. Provide 20 boxes for 20 hens and you'll come out to find 3 hens crammed into one box with a fourth with her head inside while laying her egg outside. The box is small, supposedly the ideal size for one hen. But regardless of the size, always more than one hen will cram in. Literally cram. Side by side, one on top of they other, whatever it takes. I wouldn't mind but the behavior usually results in a cracked or broken eggs. By mid-morning it's not uncommon the have almost all the eggs laid in one nest. The other 19 nests are a wasted investment. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sheep are stupid

"Sheep are stupid" , "wolves are mean".....from the movie Babe.  Working with both sheep and border collies, I can fully appreciate those lines.

Sheep can do the dangest things, get themselves into the weirdest situations. I believe it's not because they are truly stupid, but that they think differently than humans. They think as a flock. They react as a unit for flock survival.  So if one sheep panics and runs away from danger, say jumps over a cliff, the rest of the flock could follow. That happened in Turkey where 1500 sheep jumped off a cliff, killing 450 of them. One after another followed the sheep ahead of them, and down they went. Yikes!

I've had other sheep owners tell tales of sheep piling up in corners while fleeing some danger, imagined or real. They'll jump and climb right atop another, trampling and suffocating any small lambs to death. They're just looking for an escape route, but woe to the little lambs if there's no place to go but the corner.

You know the saying that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence? Well, sheep whole heartedly subscribe to that. Plenty of sheep have died with their head stuck through a fence, unable to figure out how to back their head out. Although I've never lost a sheep this way, I have had them get stuck on a fence. Getting them to back out is really difficult. The whole time you're trying to back their head out, they're pushing forward trying to climb through a 6 inch square opening.

Speakng about backing out, this isn't something that sheep are good at doing. It's not a flock thing, but sheep are very poor in the reversing department. They've got plenty of forward gears, but they are hard to get into reverse. Cheap transmissions!

Not only can sheep get stuck with their heads through a fence, I've had a couple get stuck trying to go under a fence. They get their head and shoulders through, but the belly stops them. Ah, again a case of no reverse. I've had to pull them by their hind legs to free them, all the while they are struggling to go forward.

Yet another case of defective reverse transmissions, I've had sheep get stuck between two close young trees. Head and shoulders through but stuck at the belly. They'll jump and push to go forward, but don't try to back out. While freeing these stuck sheep, it's easy to call them stupid. In fact, I admit that I've done it. I've cursed and called them stupid the whole time I'm working to free them. Do they help? Not in your life! They're determined to squeeze between those two trees irregardless of anything else.

I'm not sure why it happens, but I've seen sheep get stuck on their backs. I had one somehow roll onto her back into a shallow depression by a fence. Unable to right herself, she died before I discovered her. Since I check all my sheep daily, she died in less than a day. I've had other flock owners report about sheep getting stuck on their backs too. It's not common, but it happens.

Here in Hawaii it is common to see sheep and goats tied out, doing duty munching down grass and weeds. Goats seem to do fine, but you have to keep a close eye on the sheep. They tend to go forward, wrapping themselves round and round a bush, clump of grass, or some other obstacle. Before long they are out of rope and have been known to strangle themselves. Again, defected reverse gear.

Sheep flocks tend to have a leader, with the rest of the flock following them. One of our friends had a flock leader named Micah who every day led the flock out of the night pen and to the pasture, then back again in the evening. The transition between the two areas meant walking through gate A, across a driveway then through gate B. Simple. When Micah needed to be temporarily removed from the flock to treat a leg injury, the flock couldn't figure out how to transfer from the night pen into the day pasture. There was confusion, fear, no one was willing to move forward on their own. They had been doing it all their lives but couldn't do it on their own. The first day of moving the flock was really difficult until one of the sheep finally made the plunge. Weird, they acted like they had never done it before.

My own flock demonstrated their dependency on their flock leader. As a flock, they couldn't seem to think individually. One day I needed to move them through a gate between two pastures. They had grown up with this gate arrangement, frequently using it with no problem. One day I wanted to hold Stacy back so that I could shear her. I planned to let everyone else go through the gate into the adjacent pasture as usual. Well, being sheep it wasn't so easy. They ran into the fence beside the gate trying to force their way through 6 by 6 inch openings. It wasn't until one finally tumbled its way through the gate by accident that the others followed. I just shook my head and mumbled, "Sheep are stupid."

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Lawn Tractor -- New Equipment Acquisition

I finally broke down and expanded my equipment inventory. Another gasoline eating machine, a riding mower, or as I like to think of it, a lawn tractor. Tractor sounds so much more farmy than a mower. Hey, it's got a bar in the back with a hole in it, yes, I COULD hitch up something and pull it. Maybe there's no PTO, but pulling a little cart behind should count for something farmish. So there, that's settled. It's a tractor.   :)

Red tractor matches my truck, in the background. Posing with the first pile of grass clippings. 

Two factors joined forces to make me purchase it. I suffer from a severe shortage of time to get things done, plus I'm getting older, wearing myself out.

I mow grass basically to get mulch. Sure, it neatens up the property and improves the pastures after the livestock has eaten what they like. But mulch is number one. Therefore a grass catcher is mandatory. Mowing with a push mower takes up lots of time June thru December. It's great exercise, but I'm bushed after a whole afternoon of mowing. But it has its pluses - I sleep really good that night. No tossing and turning, more like a coma. Exercise has its merits, even if it is trying to kill me. My doctor tells me that regular exercise is good, it will make me younger. Well at the rate I exercise, I should be approaching 20 years old fairly soon. Won't be long before acne is once again a problem.    :)

So I picked up the mower, ahem....tractor. Friday afternoon was my first opportunity to try it out. Well, love at first ride! Took a bit of practice, but I quickly became a pro. And I haven't even hit a rock with it yet! Mowed for two hours and created 7 gigantic piles of clippings. Only 2 hours! Now this is heaven! See, I'm easy to impress, aren't I? I got much more mowed in those two hours than I would have with the push mower all afternoon. Yes, this critter is going to give me more time to use elsewhere. And I must be sick, because I really had fun mowing! 

More Kitchen Progress

I haven't had time to put into the kitchen but our friend David has. I really appreciate him tackling the kitchen because its way beyond my experience level. First he made the little tables to go beside the refrig and freezer match the rest of the kitchen workwood. Being that the two units are chest types, the tables are very convenient. They make using the chests much easier. Whatever you're looking for is bound to be underneath something else! So moving it out of the way, say to a little table, makes life easier.

Next task-- fit the countertop into its space. Since the basket drawers haven't arrived yet, David couldn't create the final framing, but he could make a frame that could be modified as needed. This allowed him to cut and fit the long counter. Between the counter and the stove I wanted a piece of granite. So with the counter in place, the granite slab could be cut to size and installed.

Next, the sink. It didn't take more than a few minutes to cut the hole for the sink. Amazing, when you have the right tools and know what you're doing. I would have had to spend a half hour just making sure that all my measurements were correct before I would have had the guts to risk cutting the countertop. My nightmare would be cutting the hole a half inch too big!

My part of this project comes next. I'll get all the plumbing parts together for the sink and install them. The sink will be plumbed into the main sewer discharge pipe but will have a diverter valve. I plan to divert this grey water to my flower bed, rather than running it into the cesspool.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Redneck Chicken

Here's a real redneck chicken .....a Turken!  She's not diseased, not scarred, not molting (well, she actually is in molt but that's not the reason her neck and head lacks feathers). She was born with no feathers on her neck and part of her head, and she's suppose to be that way. The Turkens are odd looking, but perfectly healthy.

Redneck Rosie, the Turken hen. 

I've gotten a lot of strange reactions to these chickens. Most people think there is something wrong with them. Others think that I abuse or neglect my birds. I've had people say that the birds were sick or malnourished. No one , but nobody, thinks that it's normal. So of course, it's fun to have Turkens just to mess with people because everybody gets it wrong.

Turkens are fairly good egg layers. They all produce a medium colored brown egg. This particular hen lays eggs on the dark side though all her sisters lay lighter colored eggs. Most of the eggs they lay are larges and big mediums, with a few extra larges thrown in. And in production, they usually lay 6 eggs a week. Not bad.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Slug Buffets - Going Green!

This is great!!!  One of the blog followers came up with this.

I'm a big advocate of using what you have on hand. 

So S.J. wanted to protect her newly seeded radishes from marauding slugs and decided to make a slug buffet. Not having any plastic containers around, she did happen to have an old gourd. Cutting it up into the appropriate shapes, she created a marvelous version of a slug buffet, feeding tray and all. 

I love it!!

Kitchen Progress - Pantry Counter

We're making progress! The counter top is now in the pantry, and the storage shelf below it. This is where I plan to store my various appliances, keeping them handy. Blender. Tabletop oven/broiler. Coffee grinder. Panini maker. Juicer. Food processor. Mixer. Waffle iron. Kitchen scale.

Over time I'm sure I'll find other things to store here. It looks like a good spot for my mason jar collection. I have a real problem with such nice horizontal surfaces. I tend to fill them up. But hopefully I have plenty enough storage spaces that the counter won't disappear under a pile. 

View from the kitchen side. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

African Keyhole Garden -Step 2

Well, I finally found some time to finish filling in the keyhole garden #1. The central basket is filled with a mixture of chicken pen litter, sprinkling of soil and compost, and plenty of assorted fresh material for composting (old fruits, badly damaged veggies, green grass clippings, etc). In just 24 hours it has gotten quite hot and is already in full composting mode.

The main bed of the garden has been filled with layers. As you can see in the photos, the fill is mounded up the closer it gets to the central core. The top layer is grass clippings with enough soil to hold it place against the wind. Once filled, I watered it real well. 

First filling, well watered, and starting to compost. 

The garden needs to set alone for a few weeks. It's going to heat up and settle quite a bit. So in a couple weeks we will tromp the stuff down and add more. I suspect that it will go down a good foot, so it will need a lot of refilling. Then once that settles down and the material no longer feels hot, the top layer of soil will go on. I'm guessing we will put 5-6 inches of soil on top, then begin to plant. 

While we are waiting to plant into this new garden, the central core basket will be replenished as needed with the sort of things one puts into a compost bin. In reality, that is exactly what it is. It will feed the keyhole garden. 

Boy, I am really looking forward to planting this buggah and seeing how it works! 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

An Outsider's Viewpoint of my Homestead Farm Life

A fairly new person to the area phoned the other day and asked to see my farm. Normally I'd decline, but this woman went on and on about wanting to go back to homegrown foods, be "green", about how she moved here to improve her health. Guess I was having just a wussy day, because I caved in and said yes. The visit turned out to be quite a learning lesson for both of us.

I'm going to make up a name for this woman because I'm going to get real tired of just saying she and her all the time. So lets call her Mary.

Mary moved here from Chicago. So this is quite a lifestyle change for her. She's never had a garden, never had a pet. But she is keen on eating healthy, growing food, and becoming "green" ...whatever that means.

I let Mary see my house, which is still a house in progress. I could see that the water catchment turned her off. "You bathe with rainwater?" Yes, I also wash my dishes, clothes, and just about everything else. The thought of using catchment water doesn't bother me. I pointed out to her that it was a really "green" way to get water. I don't think she'll be switching over to catchment anytime soon.

I then showed Mary our "green" electricity, the solar system. She consoled me on the fact that I lacked a dishwasher, had to have chest refrig, no clothes drier, had no TV, no computer set up, no entertainment center, no convection oven, no plethora of kitchen appliances covering the countertops, no hottub spa, no hot water heater. I again politely explained to her about our "green" system of generating our own electricity and changing to a life of using very little power. I preferred this scaled back lifestyle, though secretly I would like to have that hottub spa.

While talking about solar panels, the young sheep came running up the driveway to try to mooch some grain. Mary cringed and backed away. With them came the four chickens. You would have thought they were velociraptors by Mary's reaction. Um, I don't think Mary is going to become a livestock keeper. I talked about being able to raise you own eggs, chicken, and lamb. Mary never relaxed.

By now I thought Mary might do better seeing the gardens. At least the plants don't move, bite, or poo and pee every two minutes. I proudly explained how we raise or trade for quite a bit of our food. Mary wanted to know what I did for wheat? Wheat, I asked? Yes, like in bread, pizza, spaghetti, crackers. Well, I don't usually eat that stuff. When I told Mary that our diet revolved around what we could grow, raise, or trade, she said there was no way she could do that. Her life was not worth living without bread, cake, pies, pizza. So what about rice? Uuuuuuuh, seldom eat rice. Mary was really skeptical about my diet. But I pointed out how healthy it was to eat fresh, clean veggies. "Clean? How do you keep the plants clean?", Mary asked. Just then three turkeys walked through the garden. Cardinals were eating some of the cherry tomatoes and house finches were nibbling on the greens. I proudly showed off the healthy worm population under the mulch. Pointed out the fact that a gardener has to keep an eye out for bugs, showing her some examples of scale on some plants, mealybug on the cutting celery, spittle bug on the rosemary. I found some stink bugs and aphids that I'll need to do something about.

Parting remarks were quite an eye opener. Is this what non-farm people think of me and my farm?
...Doesn't all the dirt bother you?
...Do you get sick often?
...Aren't you afraid of getting worms from the animals?
...Are you afraid of being bitten?
...Of course you wash your vegetables in bleach?
...Bugs and birds are in your garden all the time, spreading disease.
...How can you touch that horse manure (it was actually compost).
...Worms are all over everything.
...How can you live without security lights? Aren't you afraid of being robbed?
...What do you do with yourself at night? I'd go crazy without a TV.
...You kill the lambs? How could you! You kill the chickens? 
...Oh, you squashed that bug! Aren't you going to wash your hands? 
...You set those tomatoes on the ground. You can't eat them now, right? 
...Bees are on your flowers. Bees can kill you, stay away! 

Well at least I won't have to worry about Mary coming back and making a nuisense of herself. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Composting - A General Overview

Everybody nowadays seems to be big into the idea of composting. I'm frequently asked if I compost and how do I do it. While I believe composting has its place, I don't believe that everything needs to be processed through a traditional compost pile. 

First of all, why compost in the first place? For me it's a source of nutrients for my plants, the worms, the micro-organisms, the soil in general. It's my form of fertilizer. It fits perfectly with the idea of self reliancy, self sufficiency, low input farming. And it also keeps plant waste out of landfills. Compost can improve soil fertility, soil structure, and moisture. Used as a mulch, it keeps down weeds, shades the soil, and provides humidity in the plant zone. I rototill compost into the upper couple inches of the garden soil, which the plants respond very well to. I use compost to create growing beds and fill in container gardens. Composting (hot) also allows a gardener to utilize manures in a safe manner by killing off pathogens. 

When someone starts asking about compost, they invariably are referring to hot compost piles. But there are other ways to compost. Composting is decomposition of organic matter, thus it can be a slow process or a fast process. It can be a cold compost or a hot compost method. Composting can be done in a pile, in plastic trash bags, in bins, in a trench, or in layers like lasagna. Composting can also be done by using the material as a mulch. The idea is to create an environment where organic material will breakdown. That means providing oxygen (air) and moisture, but not so much moisture that it blocks out the oxygen.  

On the farm I compost in a variety of manners. 
1- Mulching. By using grass clippings as mulch, the grass decomposes over a period of a few months. While protecting the soil from the sunlight and preventing the germination of weed seed, it slowly feeds nutrients to the soil and provides food for worms, beneficial insects, and fungi. I've also used finished compost from the piles as a mulch instead of grass clippings and it works quite well. 
2- Trenching. I often have buckets of fruit rinds or slaughter waste that I don't want to leave  exposed because it will draw vermin. The quickest way to incorporate this into the garden is to dig a trench beside a row in the garden, fill it with the waste, then cover it with the dirt. There it will breakdown within a week or two. The worms go crazy over it. 
3- Rotary bin. At the community garden there are 3 of those rotary composting bins. Many people bought them and they turned out to be failures for them. Luckily for the community garden, 3 people donated their failed bins. The garden volunteers have come up with a good use for these bins. Each week one of the bins is emptied of "finished" compost then refilled with chicken pen litter. 1st week, bin #1. 2nd week, bin #2. Etc. The bins are checked and rotated daily. The system works perfectly. It turns chicken pen litter into useable compost in just three weeks. For those three weeks, the material stays very hot, too hot for most pathogens in the manure to survive. The stuff gets too hot to handle with bare hands. 
    Question: why did these rotary bins fail previous gardeners but not the community garden volunteers? It's a case of understanding the needs of the compost. The moisture in a closed bin is often too high, so it needs to be checked and adjusted daily. Sometimes the lid is left cracked open, wider some days, perhaps shut on others. The composting material needs to have a balance of manure to non-manure material, which volunteers do by adding grass clippings as needed, sometimes fresh green clippings (=manure), other times brown dry clippings (=non-manure). The bins needs to be turned daily because in the bins the material settles readily, thus blocking out the oxygen. With daily attention, the composting environment stays in the ideal working range. But the trick is daily attention and tweaking. 
4- Pallet box piles. I make a box by wiring 4 pallets together and lining it with cardboard. I fill it by laying in weeds, clippings, manures, inter layering wood ash, biochar, coral sand, processed bones. I add water as I make the pile and cover it with cardboard to retain moisture while keeping out excess rain. After a couple of weeks I use a Mantis tiller or a three prong hay fork to remove the material and flip it into a neighboring box. If I need compost in the garden, I'll use it right away. If not, it gets stored in the next box until needed. This type pile gets very hot, so it is good for processing manures and dead animals.
5- Container beds. I fill my various container gardens with layers of composting material before topping it off with 3-5 inches of soil. The material fills  up the space, since real dirt is in short supply around here. Plus as it decomposes, it feeds the plants. I just take care not to use woody material or wood chips which are notorious for becoming nitrogen gobblers as they breakdown. 
6- Biotrash pits (aka: hugelkultur). On my main farm I have a number of rather large holes in the ground that I am gradually filling in. Once filled, they becoming growing beds for flowers, veggies, bananas, etc. Smaller pits become the future spots for fruit trees. All sorts of coarse material go into these pits, where it slowly breaks down via cold composting. Logs and tree chunks, woody brush, plus lots of seedy weeds, paper and other biodegradable trash, grass clippings, poor quality soil, rocks, manure, and the occasional dead animal not useable for something else. I'll also layer in wood ash, coral sand or burnt coral, and processed bones. 
7- Lasagna composting. Also known as sheet composting. My seed farm is a good spot for this method. Being predominantly lava rock, there is no way to turn anything in or over. So layers of organic material are laid down in sheets atop the rocky ground. One layer after the other. Cardboard/newspaper. Grass clippings. Macnut husks. Horse manure. Poor fertility soil. Wood ash. Coral sand or burnt coral. Biochar. Processed bones. Chipped brush. Water well and repeat. It will take years to create a deep soil bed, but there are areas already where I'm planting pineapples and sweet potatoes into these lasagna layers. 

By using various methods of composting, I have been able to get away from using commercial fertilizer. But just like buying commercial fertilizer, composting is something that needs to be done repeatedly, every season. Some gardeners fail because they dig in compost once, then never again. They forget to feed the soil, the worms, their plants. I reapply compost with every new crop, and for long season crops or heavy feeders, I will top dress compost using it like a mulch. In the banana patch, I spread a little compost every few months, using it as a mulch. No need to dig it in. 

People will also ask me what ingredients should go into making compost. Well, just about everything. Just use everything in moderation. And mix it up. Keep it moist but not wet. Keep it fluffy so that air can get in. Until you get to know what makes your piles work, follow the mantra of 50% green 50% brown. Green = fresh weeds, grass, fruits. Brown = dead leaves, dry grass, shredded paper. Another mantra that can help -- 50% wet, 50% dry. These mantras are just starting points. You'll need to make adjustments from there. If you pile heats up within a few days, a week at the most, then you are on the right track. Warmth is good. 

I see failures with others gardeners all the time. Most common mistake -- too wet. Too much fruit. Too much wet grass. Too much fresh manure. Too much garbage. Too much rain getting into the pile. Next most common mistake -- too coarse. Too many twigs. Big stems from old veggie plants. Entire old tomato plants. Entire palm fronds. That sort of thing. Third common mistake -- too dry. People forget to wet everything going into the compost pile. Or it starts to heat up then dries out. Composting comes to a halt. Or there are too many crisscrossing stems which allow big open dry spaces. 

I just remembered another mantra that helps -- hack, wack, and stack. Hack weeds, grass, brush, etc down. The wack it into pieces, bruising the stems and leaves. Now stack it into a pile. Add water. Cover it up with something like cardboard, a thick layer of grass clippings, or a tarp. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

African Keyhole Garden - Step 1

This old dog is learning new tricks. I've been introduced to the idea of an African keyhole garden.

When it was first suggested that I check these gardens out, I thought they were nothing special, just a raised bed with an aisleway cut into them for easy access to the out of reach plants. Wrong. Sure, a standard keyhole is like that, but these African developed ones are different. These are designed for low water useage and no commercial fertilizer., my interest was piqued.

First in place, the central core. Sue J posing with the post pounder. 

African keyhole gardens are built around a vertical compost core. This compost is held in place via a basket of some sort. I suspect one could devise one of these gardens without a physical basket, but that will be a future experiment. For now, the basket will be used because it is easy and visible. 

For this first garden attempt (being constructed at the community garden), we will be builting it with available materials that cost almost nothing. 

Step 1--- We took a piece of donated hardware cloth and roll it into a tube four feet high (3 1/2 to 4 feet height is what we aimed for) and between 1 and 1 1/2 foot in diameter. Next, we pounded four rusty old t-posts (salvaged from discharged fencing) into the ground close enough so that the hardware cloth tube would slide down over them. The idea --  to keep the tube from collapsing when the garden is filled with dirt.

Pallet pieces in place. You can see the keyhole on the left. 

Step 2 - We took 6 wood pallets (a local food market donates these) and cut them to 26 inches. Why 26? Because it's an easy spot on the pallet to make the cut and it is close to 24 inches, the height we were targeting for the sides. We decided to have the slats run horizontally for stability. Two more pallets were cut on an angle going from 26" to 36". These will be for the keyhole. 

Step 3 - Assembly. We set up the two keyhole pallets then added the side walls so that it sort of looked like a hexagon. Using wire, we wired the pallets together and to the hardware cloth core. We could have nailed it all together but we opted to use the wire so that the garden could be easily dismantled.

Plastic sheeting to line the garden to prevent drying out due to tradewinds. 

Step 4 - Using a sheet of discarded black plastic, we lined the interior sides of the pallets. On the keyhole section we also covered the exterior walls just because it will help protect the garden volunteers from getting splinters as they use the keyhole. We had extra plastic available, so we used it. The reason for the plastic is twofold. It will help keep the soil and organic material inside the garden, plus more importantly it will help retain moisture. Some regions get too much rain but not us. So drainage and waterlogging is not an issue for us. But having the soil dry out due to tradewinds is a concern. We used plastic because we had it, but we could also have used a tarp, plywood, metal sheeting, etc.

Cardboard lining the sides, protecting the plastic sheeting during the fill stage. 

Step 5 - With the plastic all neatly in place, we now lined the walls with cardboard. Reason : to keep the plastic from being damaged during the filling process. We then lined the bottom with a thick layer of cardboard. The tropical grass here is very aggressive, so an inch or two of cardboard will help prevent it from growing up through the bed. The cardboard will also help keep moisture inside the bed. 

Central core bin that will receive various manures and compostable materials. These nutrients will
eventually feed the keyhole bed as water is added to the core. 

Step 6 - Load the bottom half of the bed with coarse organic material. This material will slowly decompose. We used old wood branches, coconut fronds, coconut husks, coarse grasses, banana fronds, sorghum canes. We gave it a dusting of garden soil and ash. This material as it decomposes will need nitrogen. Excess nitrogen will naturally leech out of the upper part of the bed and thus be captured by this coarse material.

Layer of coarse material that will slowly breakdown via fungal and bacterial decomposition.
Coarse grasses, old sorghum, coconut husks, coconut fronds, and wood. 

Step 7 - Water the material well and cover it with wet newspaper. 

Next a layer of wet newspaper on top. Now its time for the serious filling up of the bed. 

Step 8 - Fill the bed lasagna style. Layers of garden soil, grass clippings, chicken litter, compost, horse manure, wet newspaper. You can use just about anything. Soil amendments can be dusted on various layers -- wood ash, biochar, bonemeal, coral dust, lava sand, a little ocean water, etc, the idea is to create layers so that moisture can wick out from the central core. This is essentially a layered compost pile.

The first layer of the finishing phase. Lasagna laying of grass, compost, wood ash, bone meal,
and garden soil, wet newspaper,  plus a little chicken pen litter. The top 3 inches will be garden soil. 

We didn't get this garden finished yet. That's for next week.