Autumn Again

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Fig preserves, freshly canned, and cooling on the counter.

Growing our own food keeps us well-tuned to the seasons. This past summer has been a bit of a blur as painful realities of life demanded our full attention. The garden got a little raggedy, Hilda managed to hatch three chicks without much attention or fanfare from us, and before we knew it, it was time to plant the the fall and winter veggies!

We currently get 4-7 eggs a day from 10 laying hens, but it seems the eggs are starting to taper as the daylight hours shorten and the temperatures cool. We are expecting some serious molting to start any day. We have started to evaluate our little flock and think about any changes we might want to make as we head into the Fall. We’ve learned that keeping the flock healthy and thriving sometimes means making tough decisions about who stays and who does not.

We like to use the fall to make repairs, changes, and additions to our garden beds and this year we’ve been replacing some of the wood edging frames around the beds and tidying up the layout. Now that most of the summer garden has been harvested and we’ve planted the winter veggies in one big bed that is fenced off from intruders, the chickens are allowed to free range again. They are great helpers in tilling up the beds, weeding away any weeds, and fertilizing the beds for next year. So, as the leaves start to fall, we rake them into the beds and let the chickens break them up and work them into the dirt. It’s a great system!

Some of our last harvesting tasks involve the fruit trees. There are still apples on the apple trees, and we are just starting to harvest the ripe figs to make the delicious fig preserves we use as a marinade for pork and hams throughout the year. The persimmons are just starting to turn a pale orange, and while the leaves are starting to fall from the persimmon tree, the fruits won’t be ready until the weather gets a bit colder. Meanwhile, everything else has been harvested, canned, dried, or frozen!

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Hilda hatched 3 chicks in late August (she was setting on 4 fertile eggs) and proved to be a fantastic mama hen!

Zone 8 Update

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We are in Zone 8 here at Raggedy Hen Farm, as determined by the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Many beginning gardeners have no idea what hardiness zone they live in, or how one’s yard or garden can have “micro climates” or other factors that influence what can be planted when.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, we find there are many folks who wait to plant their gardens until mid-June and then wonder why their broccoli bolts and the lettuce gets bitter. It’s because those plants wanted to be growing back in early spring!

Remember those seeds we started planting a few weeks ago? Well as February dawns, it is time to move some of them out to the coldframe. They’ve been living a pampered life under grow lights in a steady 65 degree room and now that they have their “true leaves” it is time for them to get a protected taste of the outdoors.  The broccoli, cabbages, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and collards are all ready to transition to outdoor life–with some protection!

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We let the garden’s signals guide us in planting as well.  Our French sorrel patch wilts and gets cut back every year  and when the new leaves start to come on strong and vibrant, we know that it is time to think about planting some other cool season crops in the ground–also with a little protection in the way of strong plastic–while they germinate.  So, as February dawns, we’re planting some lettuce, spinach, kale, and turnips in raised beds tented with heavy plastic, but plenty of ventilation.  All these “babies” will still need protection from heavy frosts, but with the spring rains and warming bursts of sun–they will experience their optimal growing environment.

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The Red Rumex Sorrel pushes its tender leaves up through a blanket of mulching leaves.

The Magic of Seeds

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Because we can grow cool season crops like cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli really well here in the Pacific Northwest (especially if we get started early before the temperatures get too warm), we like to take advantage and grow a plethora of early season veggies.  Since our goal is to grow all our own vegetables from seed this year (and, hopefully, not have to buy any starts!), we’re getting going with planting seeds for seedlings to plant out in late February/early March. Growing our own seeds means we can grow all sorts of varieties and we don’t have to settle for whatever the nurseries choose to provide.

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We’ve opted to use Jiffy peat pellets for seed starting.  They are purchased in these little dehydrated mesh-wrapped soil discs. They are relatively inexpensive and do not take up a lot of storage room.  The netting is root-permeable and the entire “pot” can be planted in the ground so there won’t be any waste. We add water and the pellets expand into little “pots.”

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Teri worked at a wholesale plant nursery for several years and her “rule” is to plant no more (and no less) than 2-3 seeds per starter pot.  Since every seed won’t necessarily germinate and we will be thinning out any spindly or weak seedlings, this should leave one strong plant per pot. I confess, this planting of tiny, round cabbage and broccoli seeds is a bit tedious and does require the wearing of the reading glasses!

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We use untreated wooden tags written with permanent ink to mark the variety and type of seed, as well as the date planted.  If you’re wondering what the little “X2” is on some of the tags, that is our way of knowing that we have two rows of peat pots planted–this way, we don’t have to use up two tags!  The wooden markers work quite well for planting too–we use the little pointy tips to help push and cover the seeds. These markers will go along with the seedlings when they are planted out into the garden so we can keep track throughout the growing season.

Now the seeded pots are put under the warm grow light and we wait for seeds to sprout!  We won’t be starting the warmer season vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant for several weeks and since our growing station is rather small, this works well. We can start our seedlings in stages and by the time these are moved out to the cold frames, we’ll have room to start more seeds.

Winter Projects

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As we prepare for another “growing” year at Raggedy Hen Farm, we have a few projects on our list to tend to. On the horizon for this Spring: another hen house, possibly another top bar bee hive, and some cold frames for our soon-to-be-seedlings. Before purchasing new materials, we try to recycle or upcycle whenever possible and this usually means a trip to a nearby local treasure BRING Recycling!

Yesterday I had “cold frames” on my mind as I headed out dressed in my trusty down vest, scarf and fleece hat for an hour of perusing all the lumber, fixtures, pieces, parts, and containers. I had an idea of what I was looking for, but remained open to inspiration.  After picking up, turning over, and measuring, I came home with three thick wooden drawers and three glass windows that fit perfectly over the top:

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These should work nicely to put seedlings and plants in as we harden them off for outdoor life–serving as mini-greenhouses. The glass can also be used to provide a little extra warmth when tented over plants once they are in the ground, if need be. Someday, we hope to build a big greenhouse, but these should work just fine for now.  And, the price was right! Each glass window cost $3 and each drawer cost $2, so the entire project only set us back $15 and we used existing materials. The icing on the cake is BRING is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, providing community jobs and keeping all sorts of “treasures” out of the landfill.