Sunday, March 29, 2015

Small Space Vegetable Garden Techniques: Intensive Gardening

If you are like me and have a small space for your vegetable garden, or just want to get more out of the space that you have, an easy way to fit more plants in less space is to change the arrangement. When it comes to the vegetable garden, it becomes a game to see if I can increase production each year by learning new techniques, and I can get a little obsessed with getting the most I can out of the area. That's when the diagrams come out to find the most strategic plant arrangement possible...

Traditional gardens use rows with unused garden space between each row of plants for walking. Unless you have a large garden area, the rows in between the plants wastes a lot of gardening area. An average 3x6 foot garden planted with the traditional row arrangement will fit only ten plants that all for 12 inch spacing.
Another method commonly used in raised beds and backyard vegetable gardens is the square foot gardening method. In this method, the gardener lays out a grid in the garden with each square in the grid measuring one square foot. Therefore, in a 3x6 foot garden, you would be able to fit 18 plants. While this arrangement is a much better use of space, there are still unused areas in the corners of each of the squares that are not utilized.

Intensive gardening still follows the suggested plant spacing of 12 inches, but staggers the rows of plants to make use of the lost corner space in square foot gardening. The spacing for plants in this arrangement are measured at an angle, allowing even more plants to fit in the area. This 3x6 garden will hold 23 plants that require 12 inch spacing! 

More plants means more produce, and more produce means more yield from the space that you have. This is just one of many ways to increase your yields, but it is a very simple technique to implement in the backyard vegetable garden. I hope you have a very productive vegetable garden this year!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Spring into Fruit Trees!

I love spring! First of all, the weather is so nice and warm- all of nature is bursting with new growth and energy and you can't help but join in by rolling up your sleeves to dig in the dirt. My vegetable plants go in the ground early, but the first signs of spring are in the fruit department. This always gets me excited, because every flower equals one fruit that I will get to harvest and eat later! 

Fruit is so expensive to buy, but so good for you! We go through a lot of fruit at our house. One of the best investments in our yard has been putting in fruit trees. They easily pay back your investment after just a couple of harvests but will keep producing for years and years. Currently in our yard we have 5 blueberry bushes, Crabapple, Fuji apple, Baldwin pear, Hood pear, grapevine, blackberry vines, Meyer lemon, satsuma, grapefruit, kumquat, and pomegranate. I know it sounds like a lot, but we enjoy them so much that we just ordered 3 more dwarf trees! Here are a few of my favorite sights in spring...

Our Balwin pear bloomed for the first time this year, which means we will get our very first harvest of pears in late summer/ early fall. Some little pears are already forming!

The mulberry was our first fruit tree. Here are some little berries on our mulberry tree. Mulberries don't technically bloom- they have little curly hairs on them for pollination purposes. I don't mind as long as the tree is covered!

Blackberries everywhere! So many little flowers with bees buzzing all around to pollinate each one. I have let the vines take over the entire back fence and we will probably get about 8 lb. of berries this year. I can already taste the summer berry smoothies :)

Satsumas (a kind of citrus) will have a heavy production year followed by a light one. This is our heavy year, and the tree is absolutely loaded with blooms.

I just love the little purple flowers on the lemon tree. So dainty and cute! And they smell like honeysuckle :)

Blueberry bushes don't have very showy blooms, but look like little white bells. Our bushes are still young, but put out a good amount of berries.

These pink Fuji apple blossoms make me smile. This is another tree that we will get our first fruit from this year. So exciting!

What is blooming in your garden right now? Anything promising some delicious treats later? I just love that I'll already be enjoying fresh fruit while my vegetables plants are just getting rolling. Hello, spring! It's been a while...

Monday, March 16, 2015

Canned Citrus Cranberry Conserve

I had some leftover cranberries in the freezer that I have been meaning to get to and finally had some time today! I had enough for two different canning recipes- a whole cranberry sauce and a cranberry conserve! In case you have never had a conserve before, it is a chunky spread that is a mix of fresh fruit, dried fruit, and nuts. They go great on pastries, cheese trays, or a garnish for meats.

What you need:
- 1 orange (with the peelings!), finely chopped and seeded
- 2 cups water
- 3 cups sugar
- 4 cups cranberries (fresh or frozen)
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/2 chopped pecans (can substitute other nuts if desired)

Combine oranges and water in a large sauce pan. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for five minutes until the peels soften. 

Add the cranberries, raisins, and sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves.

Return to a boil on medium high heat stirring constantly. Boil hard for 10-15 minutes until the mixture thickens. Remove from heat and do a gel test to see if it is ready. Stir in the nuts and continue to stir for 15 more minutes. Dip a spoon in and if the mixture sheets of instead of drips off then it is ready.

Ladle the mixture into sanitized jars leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Process jars in a water bath for 15 minutes. 

This conserve is sweet and tangy...just right!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Summer Herb and Veggie Quiche

I love this recipe for a summer quiche! It is so flavorful and goes perfectly with a fresh salad when you want a light, healthy, and garden fresh meal.

What you need:
- pie crust
- 1 bell pepper (green, red, or yellow), chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp. fresh basil (if you want to kick it up a notch, use lemon basil!)
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup milk
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. pepper
- 2 cups cheddar cheese (or pepper jack, depending on your preference)
- 1/3 cup parmesan cheese
- 2 Roma tomatoes cut into 1/4 inch slices

Bake the pic crust at 425 degrees F for 10 minutes. Saute bell peppers and garlic in oil and stir in basil after 5 minutes.

Whisk eggs, milk, salt and pepper in a bowl. Stir in vegetables, cheddar cheese and parmesan. Pour the mixture into the pie crust.

Lay tomato slices on top of the mixture. Bake at 425 degrees F for 60 minutes. 

If you have more mixture than can fit in the pie crust, you can always use tortillas in muffin pans to make little snack sized versions!

I hope you enjoy the perfect blend of herbs, cheese, and fresh veggies in this great summer meal!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Planning your Chicken Flock for Year-Round Eggs

Chickens are animals, not egg laying machines. They don't lay year round and they don't lay forever, but there are ways to plan out the life cycle of your backyard chicken flock to give you better chances of getting eggs year round.

The egg laying cycle of a chicken goes something like this:
0-6 months: no eggs
6 months- 2 or 3 years- 3-6 eggs per week
Molting- 4-6 weeks during the fall (usually October-November)
Winter- once the days get shorter, usually they don't lay again after molting until February. The only exception is with chickens that have just started laying- they will usually lay through the winter months during that first year.
Broody- depends on the chicken. Some will never be broody, some are broody constantly. Basically they sit in an empty nest box thinking they are hatching eggs...

There are unnatural ways to encourage laying in chickens during the winter months, like keeping a light on in the coop, but I prefer to give the ladies a break when they need one during the winter. After all, chickens have these cycles of rest for a reason. However, with careful flock management and planning, you can raise your chances of getting eggs year-round.

Older chickens will lay fewer and fewer eggs as time passes, and feeding chickens without getting fed as a result is not a good use of resources. And since new chicks will usually lay through their first winter, that is the key! We are putting a three-year plan into effect with our backyard flock, and it looks something like this...

For the sake of conversation, let's say that you have a flock of 10 backyard laying hens.

Year 1:
Buy five chicks in April of the same breed (actually probably get 6-7 because they hardly ever all make it to adulthood). These chicks will begin laying in October, lay through the winter, really ramp up egg production in the spring and then take their first rest in the fall of the second year.

Year 2:
Buy five chicks in April of a second breed, preferably that lay a different color egg than the first. These chicks will begin laying in October of the second year, just as the first group begins to take their rest for the winter.

Year 3:
Buy five chicks in April of either a third breed or the same as the first breed, once again that preferably lay yet a different color egg. These chicks will begin to lay in October as the first group finishes their second year of laying and the second group takes their first rest. As this group of chicks begins to lay in October, it will mark two years of laying for the first group, which means their egg production will have significantly slowed down. The first group of chickens will be retired (to the pot or freezer if you want to make the most of your investment).

Year 4 and forward:
Continue the cycle of buying new chicks each spring and retiring the oldest group of layers each fall to keep up optimum egg production in older hens, year-round egg production from the youngest hens, and a little meat every fall for chicken noodle soup or gumbo!

Many people start a flock of backyard chickens without considering that the group will go through its best production, as well as breaks, and finally slow down and stop laying all at the same time. Staggering the ages of your chickens will help even out the overall production of the flock over time. Also, using groups of chickens with different colored eggs will help you keep track of the production of each individual age group of chickens within your flock. I hope this helps you plan your long-term chicken flock!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

When I started my first little kitchen garden, I would get so excited anytime I could use something I had grown as an ingredient in something I was cooking. The more I have expanded the garden, the more grocery store ingredients have been replaced by homegrown and handmade ones. This recipe is a great example of making a meal with almost every ingredient straight from the yard! Oh, and they're delicious :) I hope you enjoy these savory stuffed cabbage rolls!

What you need:
- 16-20 large cabbage leaves (the ones on the outside of the head that you usually toss)
- 1 lb ground beef (or rabbit)
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2-3 carrots, chopped
- 1 cup cooked brown rice
- 1 tbsp dried parsley
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. pepper
- 1 egg
- 24 oz. tomato sauce
- 1 tbsp. dried oregano
- 1/2 cup mozzarella (grated)

Steam the cabbage leaves on the stove- put the leaves in a few inches of water in a pot and cover with a lid for 10-12 minutes. While you're waiting for that, brown the ground beef, onion, and carrots. Once the ground beef is fully cooked add in the rice, parsley, salt, pepper, and egg.

Once the cabbage leaves are done, take them out and gently drain off the liquid. Use a knife to cut a "V" shaped slit in each leaf to remove the thickest part of the rib in each leaf. Next, scoop a few spoonfuls of the ground beef mixture onto the leaf.

Now tuck in the ends and roll it up! Place all of the cabbage rolls in a glass baking dish.

Next mix the tomato sauce and oregano together and pour it over the cabbage rolls. Cover it with aluminum foil and cook it in the oven for 90 minutes at 350 degrees (F). Right when you pull it out of the oven, sprinkle the cheese on top to melt and you're done! 

Delicious, garden fresh, and healthy stuffed cabbage rolls. I was able to use carrots, parsley, oregano, cabbage, and eggs all from our homestead. (If I had planned ahead a little better I could have also used rabbit meat, onions, and tomato sauce.) Now that's a meal I'm proud of! 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Top Ten Gardening and Homesteading Hacks

Here are my top ten all time favorite gardening and homesteading hacks! These simple tricks are too good not to share :) For more detailed info on any of these ideas, click on the links provided.

1. Add a goldfish to your rain barrel to keep mosquitoes from breeding. For ten cents it will eat all of the mosquito larvae and you never have to feed your goldfish!

2. When buying wood for homesteading projects, check the damaged and returned wood at Lowe's and Home Depot to get up to 90% off the sticker price.

3. Lay down decorative metal garden edging or cucumber trellises to keep cats and other animals from digging up seeds in freshly planted soil.

4. Put cardboard down in the bottom of raised beds to kill weeds and grass and then add the dirt on top. The cardboard will decompose allowing plants to root deep in the ground, but only after it has suffocated all of the weeds and grass beneath it.

5. Put a layer of heavy duty chicken wire a few inches off the ground as the base of a chicken run floor to allow chickens to "free range" without pecking the ground bare.

6. Take a 2 liter bottle with a small hole in the top and flip it upside down into the dirt to water plant roots directly and avoid losing water through evaporation in the heat of the summer.

7. Use a spray bottle filled with water to train chickens to BE QUIET!

8. Use a spray bottle with a mixture of skim milk and water to naturally get rid of powdery mildew on plant leaves.

9. For carrots and other small seeds that need to stay consistently moist for germination, plant the seeds, water them in, and then lay a wooden board over the area to keep the moisture from evaporating. Check under the board each day and remove once the seedlings sprout.

10. Use oatmeal, cayenne pepper, and garlic as a natural chicken dewormer.

I hope you enjoy these tips and tricks! Feel free to add your own in the comments!

How to "Free Range" Chickens in an Enclosed Run

We all know the benefits of free ranging chickens- higher egg nutrition, better chicken health, and lower feed costs just to name a few. However, there are also many reasons that people choose NOT to free range their chickens- protection from predators, city by-laws, or just trying to contain the mess or keep them out of the gardens. Is there a way to have the best of both worlds? Can you "free range" chickens in an enclosed run?

While this solution technically would not be considered free ranging, it does allow chickens to have access to dirt (where they can dig and dust bathe) as well as a limited, but constant supply of fresh greens to peck at. As you can see, this was a store bought coop and run (seen all the way on the back side. And built on to it is a large run. Normally just a few chickens would peck all of the grass from this run completely bare within days, not allowing any greens to grow back. 

  In order to keep the greens growing, simply set up base of 2x4's around the bottom edge and lengthwise every few feet inside and put a layer of small square chicken wire across the entire bottom. This allows the grass to grow up through the holes to be eaten by the chickens without pecking it bare. 

The poop falls through the grate to fertilize the grass, and rain also falls through to naturally water it. Make sure to leave the floor of part of the coop ungrated so that the chickens can also have an area to dig in the dirt and dust bathe.

Voila! Happy, healthy chickens in an enclosed coop with plenty of access to natural greens!