Spring….I think…maybe

In Georgia there is a thin line between the weird unpredictable winter and blistering summer.  It is hard to actually call it a season, because it does not last nearly long enough to get that title.   The weather bounces back and forth across the line for a few months.  This year, January had days that got up to 70 degrees; last year Atlanta (yes, pretty much the whole city) shut down for a week of ice and snow.  I stayed locked up in my house eating french toast for 7 days.   Two weeks ago it got down to 21 degrees; today was the mid to high 70s.   I’ve decided to call it spring and hope for the best.  Granted, two years ago it snowed on the 1st of April, so I can’t guarantee anything.  But I figure I will go ahead and do my spring planting and other activities, because the gain I could receive in terms of harvest greatly outweighs the cost of a few seeds.   If it did frost again, the peach blossoms would die, but I have no power over that.   I think I might cry if that happened; summer tastes like peaches.

I did a lot of planting in the winter this year.  The plan was that hardy plants could go ahead and get started under a leaf cover, and I would be saved having to try to start seeds inside.  I am horrible at indoor seed starting.  Almost all my inside seedlings died last year due to fungus gnats.  A few of the winter plants got so big I harvested and ate them already (cabbages, chard).  But most are still small.   But it is a heck of a head start over where I was last year.


I spent today removing leaf cover from the carrots and lettuce.  You should know I already did this once.  I was sure 3 weeks ago that while freezing might happen there was no chance it would drop below around 28 degrees.  Lettuce and carrots would have been just fine at 28, but 21 no way!  So I had a mad cat scramble to put the leaves back on.  At least I got the carrots thinned out the first time.  The lettuce got thinned today.  I took all the small plants that were being choked out and moved them to the back of the bed.  I find this method of broadcasting lots of seeds and then moving, eating, or composting the smaller plants to be much less work than starting seeds one at a time in a flat or pots.   As Scrooge McDuck says, “Work smarter, not harder”.

On some tasks I am really behind.  I only got around to putting compost crops in one bed.  And over the winter I let the weeds get really out of hand.  I spent most of my day weeding, but happily it is almost all done!  That which is left is only about an hour of work that I can do tomorrow.  It was getting dark and we found a snake, so it was time to go inside.

I got one more bed seeded with compost crops, which seems a little silly at this point.  The beds should be for food right now, not rye grass and clover, but the front bed was in really bad shape, so it could use it.   I am only going to let the compost crops grow a few weeks before I let the chickens attack them. I am really interested to see the chickens working in the garden.  I might take them outside tomorrow if I can make a safe enclosure for them.  I hope they enjoy the weeding more than I do.

There is a lot of work to be done over the next few weeks; ordering seeds, planting, hopefully getting time to build a few beds in the back yard.   This is the time of year that is all work and almost no harvest, aside from the never-ending salad (oh, that reminds me, I need to plant radishes tomorrow).

 However, I did have a nice little surprise in the front bed.  I found a wee lucky potato.  

Chicken Babies – First few weeks

I have been wanting chickens for years.  They are cute, good garden worker and they will give me eggs.  I have not gotten them before now for several reason but the big one is them not actually being legal here.   The people I have talked to in the government swear that is going to change this year.  But they have been saying it for years already.  So by getting chickens I am taking a risk.  Lot of people have them, everyone (government people and people who have them) says it should be ok, but it might not be.  If a neighbor complains I could loose them or get fined or something.  But part of getting the law changed is making it more commonplace for people to have them, so I have decided to go for it.

Playing Dead

I got my chicken in two groups, one week apart.  The first group was from Chattanooga.  It was a long drive and they did not bring the birds I wanted most (Americanas), which is why I had to get a second batch.  For the first few days they would just fall asleep randomly and fall over. Chicks are sort of delicate, so the first few times they did this I was afraid they were sick. But I figured out pretty quick that they were just sleepy.   The breeds of the group from Jan 28 are two Barred Rocks and two Buff Orpingtons.   One of each is for my friend Erik when they are big enough to live outside.  If I can bear to part with them.   I love my chicken babies.

The next Friday I got another three chicks from a nice guy in Austel.   He only sold them if you bought at least three.  I have no idea why that is.  I got the the two Americanas I wanted and I also got a Leghorn.He had a few types to choose from but the leghorn was least like all the others I have.  She will be my only white egg layer, and my only white bird.  Leghorns are not as docile as the other breeds, sometimes they are insane.

When I put the groups together I was afraid there would be fighting, but it only took about 20 minutes for them to be a happy flock.  All seven do everything together now, I think there might only be one brain between all of them when it comes to some things.  I guess that is why they are called a flock.  The Americanas seem to be the smartest, the leghorn the most aggressive. 

Having chickens is lots of fun so far.  They mostly hate me and scream every time I touch them, but they will eat out of my hand if I stay pretty still. They are confused about freckles (which I have lots of) so they have pecked at them until I have bleed a few times.  I hope they don’t get a taste for human. I don’t want to be found dead in the back yard some day killed by chickens.

Right now they are all between 3 weeks and 1 month old.  I am amazed at how much they have grown and changed in such a short time. The biggest Buff is almost compeletly feathered now, and the others are not far behind.   I have a hen house for them but it needs some work (it was a children’s play house) but no closed in run area yet.  At the rate they are growing they will be ready to go outside in less than a month.

Winter Garden

Today I just want to post a few pictures of my winter garden.  Last winter I started experimenting with four season gardening, but I only planted a few things.  This year I have a whole bunch more.

  These are peas with lettuce in the background.   I had peas for a while this spring and harvested quite a few, but for a very short time.  By the time we got to May it was already too hot for them.  This is one of my favorite crops.  They are easy to plant, easy to grow, have pretty white flowers and make a weird squeaky sound when you touch them.   There are lots and lots of flowers right now, so I should have a crop of peas to eat in the next few weeks if this amazing weather holds.  Even if not, as long as it does not get too cold these plants should be ok.

This picture is of chard, onions and carrots. All  are from seed.  The odd part is the onion seeds were planted last spring.  Not sure why they decided to just hang around and wait until now, but that is OK.  They need to do whatever works for them.  I put some compost and lime on the chard yesterday.  This is my first time using an additive for a specific plant.   I normally work under a system of everyone gets dirt and compost and the strong survive.  But I really want chard to be big and delicious for New Years, because those are my greens of choice.   The carrots have nice tops but the carrot part is tiny because the soil here has too much nitrogen.   I don’t have a good plan on how to deal with this.  Each year my soil will get better, so where do I put the plants like carrots and sweet potatoes that grow best in bad soil?  

 This is the only time I have had success at brassicas, which I have up until now planted in the spring.  These had a few bug problems early on, as you can tell from the outer leaves.  But the first frost mostly fixed that. It killed the moths and the cabbage worms, but from time to time I still see these ashy gray aphids.   Since then they have been growing like crazy.  I am actually amazed at how big they are.   Had I realized this, I might have planted them further apart.  There are 6 plants in a 3×4 area.   I am going to harvest the one in the front for dinner tonight.  Mmmmm corned beef and cabbage.   The flavor of the outer leaves is a little spicy and bitter, different than cabbage normally is, but I like it.

The last picture is of my artichoke patch, all finished and sincere.  These were planted last spring, but pretty much left to their own devices.  With having a job and the big garden in the front, I never got around to even watering them.  Somehow they were still alive when I was raking a few weeks ago, so I decided to build a special area around them so I could not forget them again. The fence is the wattle I was building in the last post, and the border is $20 of landscaping timbers.  The plants are noticeably bigger just in the last few weeks.

Building A Wattle Fence

It is the middle of  December and the weather is perfect for being outside.  I wanted to do something and also felt crafty. I made a long list of projects, but before most of them could be done I had to clear a bunch of ivy where we will be putting in a chicken run.  So since all the ivy had to go anyway, I thought I should do something with it, and that is what prompted this project.

 A wattle fence is made by weaving flexible branches or vines between posts, like making a giant basket. The posts can be very small like the ones I used for this, or much bigger.  The weaving material needs to be small and pliable enough to work with.  Saplings are great for this; many people use willow and it is supposed to be just about the best thing you can use. I don’t have any willow, but I would love to try it some time.  When I buy land for my farm one of the first things I will plant is willow.

This is an old practice.  If you have a hatchet and enough material, you can build fences, walls, or even houses using these techniques.  When building a house use wattle and daub. Daub is a mud type stuff put all over the wattle.  You should look it up, they can be neat.  Wattle can be pretty or rustic, and can last a long time.

The first step is to cut down some branches. I chose to cut them each 4 feet long.  You can clean off all the smaller branches on each or leave them for the weaving; I chose to clean them because I find that easier.  I left some forks and lots of little nodes to set the weaving on.

Once I had as many as I thought I would need, I made the ends sharp with the hatchet. Hitting things with a hatchet is fun; if you have never done it before you should.  After that I pushed them in to the ground and then hit them with a hatchet, so were really small at the top.  At this point I realized they would have been better a little thicker; I worry about them falling over. But they are what I have, so I carried on.  

Once the posts were in the ground I started gathering the weaving material and weaving it on.  This is the part that took a long time.  Sometimes the ivy would break while being pulled out, as it was such a tangled mess.  Some of this was here before we moved in, and we have not done much to keep it under control.  I took off the leaves and roots of each piece to make them easier to work with.  Some pieces were very long, as much as 8 or 9 feet,  some that I used were as small as 3.  It was pretty much random.  If I liked a piece I used it.  If not, I put it in the leaf pile.   This part took several hours of work over the course of a few days.   The hardest part is joining a new piece to an old piece; sometimes that can be really annoying, but before too long I had the hang of it.   As you can imagine, it  gets pretty complex.  I went around the fence 3 times on each level, wrapping, braiding and weaving the ivy.

This picture is of a first pass, but you can see the finished ones underneath.

This is fun alone or with friends.  It is much faster and easier when you have help, because often 3 or 4 hands are needed to make it work right.  The structure is all done now, if a bit wobbly, and I am happy with the results.

 If you don’t like old fashioned or rustic, it might not be your thing, but if you like free then it certainly is.  There is more I can do here if  I want.  I can weave the other direction, making it sort of chain link.  Or I can go diagonally from post to post, making a diamond pattern.  Or I can decorate it, which is what I am doing.  So far I have added on some ivy with leaves, and I am going to put on bows and maybe some white holiday lights.

Last Harvest

Today might be the last big harvest.

Leaves are dying and a frost is expected this week.   I still have dozens of tomatoes and pepper on the plants and I have not decided how to deal with that.  I could pick them all green and let them turn red inside over the next few weeks.  I could try covering the plants with blankets and hope for the best.  I have heard that pulling the plants up and then hanging them upside down can allow the tomatoes to grow a bit more and ripen better, but I don’t think that is practical.  Some of the plants are about 6 feet tall and about half as wide.  I can’t imagine being able to move them and hang them with out damage.

The Garden is over. Sure I have several winter crops that should do fine with a light frost; carrots,  cabbage, peas, lettuce and lots of herbs.  But those don’t feel quite the same.  The high point of the garden is red ripe tomatoes, beans that make loud cracking noises when you break them, big messy bunches of wild flowers, and a canopy of sunflowers (they got cut down months ago, so I am over that lose).   Gone are the things I have to climb under to harvest, the plants that I can hide behind if I don’t want to be engaged by my neighbors.   I guess it all makes sense, winter is the time to pull in, stay close to home and rest.  And given how hard my little piece of perfect worked this year it deserves the break.

Joy in a Suburban Homestead

The time I spend working on my garden is precious.  From planning to harvest, each stage gives me new pleasure and challenges.   Every year I experiment with new varieties and placement,  new structures and supports.

One of my favorite changes this year is the bean tunnel.   It is made of livestock panel and some metal fence posts.   The idea is for the beans to climb up it, making this pretty covered tunnel that I can hide in.  Having a small yard in a dense neighborhood means very little of my yard has the private solitary feel that I like from a garden, and also almost no shade.  The bean tunnel is an attempt at making private space, no matter how small.   So far I love it.  The beans are growing exactly like they should with almost no help from me.   The ones climbing are mostly rattlesnake (Bountiful Gardens seeds), a very tender purple spotted bean with great flavor.  We grew it last year and liked it, so we decided to do it again.

On the ground you will see black weed block.   This is also new this year.  My front yard was all grass when we moved in.  And no matter how hard you try, grass is resilient.   I think I work harder killing all my grass than anyone in my neighborhood does keeping theirs a creepy green color all year long.  This year Erik had the idea to hoe up the first few inches of grass, staple down weed block and then cover with something.  The something you see here under the tunnel is rubber mulch.  I got it because it is recycled, rather pretty, lasts forever and nothing is going to grow in it.  The downside is that is sucks to walk on with bare feet.  The other option I tried, which you can see to the left, is sand.  Feels great on the feet, and not likely to get things growing in it.  But it will wash away over time.

Specially trained attack tomatoes

Speaking of structures, a new one is called for with these tomatoes.  They have bent this support and are about to take it down.  Tomorrow I am going to take some more livestock panel and make something to put around them that might be a little more sound. While I am at it, all the other tomato plants which are still pretty small might as well get the same treatment.  Lots of volunteer tomatoes this year, there is a one under the sunflowers that looks to be a roma of some type.

I am using the biointensive method, with increasing success.   My lettuce and radish area is just about perfect – almost no space at all between these plants.  That means no weeds, no mulch, and great water retention.  The idea is to make a mini-ecosystem  under a group of plants. I have found that growing close makes for much healthier plants, and that some plants like radishes will not even grow if too far away from others of their kind.   I need to eat all of this very soon.  With the super high temperatures (mid-90s everyday this week) lettuce is about to bolt, which will not be good eats.

Companion planting is fun, sort of like a game.   For the last few years I have been trying to get nasturtium and squash both growing at the same time, with no luck.  I killed every nasturtium I planted.   Which was sad, because I thought they would be pretty.  And they are!  This year they are finally working.  I have three plants living, one each red, yellow and orange.  Which is odd, because the seed package shows red, and I have always heard they are red.  I am happy they come in more than one color.  I like surprises like that.   I hope having the nasturtium helps with squash bugs.  Summer squash is one of my favorite foods when fresh.  Last year was a real disappointment for squash.  Between squash bugs, mexican bettles (tricksy bastards) and not enough water, we got maybe 2 meals worth of squash all season.

          Here are the two great friends- yellow squash and nasturtium. The leaves of the nasturtium are almost as pretty as the flowers.  This plant looks like it either came from the past and was a favorite of dinosaurs, or else from an alien world. No, I don’t know why I feel that way, I just do.  I have an active imagination.  Oh, fun thing about my squash.  I planted the seeds of several kinds at random, so until they have fruit I don’t know what they are.  This one is yellow straight neck. One of the others is getting its first fruit and it looks  like it might be a pattypan of some kind.

Sometimes I look at my tiny yard and I long for the future, when I will have a real farm with all the garden space I could ever want, with chickens and cows, and an evil mule.  But most of the time I am happy with what I have.  I am learning each plant’s likes, dislikes and needs on an intimate basis. Each plant is special. With a small garden I can take the time to care for them one at a time.   Also, a suburban homestead is a nice step.  A 5-acre plot might overwhelm me.  I might run around like crazy planting things at random, wanting to use it all, and making a big mess.   With my small plot I have to really think about how I am going to use every foot.   Until I started this garden I always thought of growing my own food as efficient, self-sufficient and utilitarian.  Having a garden in the front yard as taught me that a garden can also be a beautiful work of art.

Growth in the midst of winter

Word is there will be snow today, but I think this should be our last wave of cold weather, so the little plantlings will be outside soon, so they can grow big and strong.

Here they are two weeks after going into the flats.

The onions are ready to go out now, but I don’t have a bed prepared yet, I hope they can hold out for a few weeks.   It will be so interesting to see how the celery grow.  Looking at the little plants, I can’t figure it out.  I guess I could look it up, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.

Last night I added lettuce and sunflowers to the flat.  So the first flat is full.   This weekend I am going to fill up the next 3 flats and then I will have all my seeds except the few (carrots, radishes) that I am going to broadcast.

I am doing something new this year, testing the soil.  I have never felt this was nessacarry, and have taken a survival of the fittest approach. But I was reading a book on growing berries, and it talked about how important it is to know what your soil is like to make good choices about where to plangt, and how to prepare beds, that I figured I would give it a try.  I gathered one sample yesterday from the front yard.  The way this works is you dig little holes about 6 inches deep in 5 to 8 random spots of your growing area.  From each of those holes you cut a slice from the side with a trowel, trying to get about the same sample amount for each depth.  You put all these samples in a clean plastic bowl (don’t use metal) and mix it up.  Once well mixed you put it in the little bag, take it to your extension office, and they send it off for testing.  I will do the same thing in the rose garden tomorrow and then drop them both off.   I am doing this a little late so it might not be helpful to my planting, but it will be interesting to know.

Yesterday I also set up an area in front of the living room windows to grow a wild flower/butterfly garden. I think the kittens will get a kick out of it. Those are their favorite window to sit it.  This turned out to be a much more dangerous task than you would think, I tripped and got a very minor sprained ankle.  It would have been funny recorded. I was walking, and then I was on the ground, with a little squeaky scream.  My back was towards the walk way, so I put one put one arm behind me, and rested my head in my hand, all comfy looking. So by the time Jeff ran over to check on me, I was relaxed looking and said “Oh, I meant to do that, just needed a rest, right then”  We also found a giant black widow.  I don’t mind that they want to live here, but could they maybe hang out not on my plants (last year I picked one up on accident) or in my garden. Yesterday’s big girl was inside the hallow fake gray rocks that made up my front garden boarder.  I was moving them to the butterfly garden.  She was pretty sleepy from the cold, so she did not run out of it and bite us.  Sadly, I made the decision to kill her.  I did not kill the one I found last year.  Our next door neighbors have a three/four year old, and I worry about her being outside and getting bit.  I am pretty sure that if Puck, Jeff or I got bit, we would be able to go to the hospital and live, but I don’t know about a little kid, and I did not have time to go research it.  I will research that today, so I can make a better decision next time.



Originally uploaded by Kittyavatar

We got the first part of our seed order today, more than half of what we will be planting. I am so excited, too bad it is still cold and rainy, but I am sure the spring will be coming soon.

There is still lots to do. We need to make our flats before we can start the seeds. (Tomatoes Feb.15, everything else March 1) Then while they are going we need to figure out for sure where we want the gardens, dig them and make some raised beds. We are doing a hybrid of in the ground and raised, because our soil is very poor (if we can afford all the supplies).

Our Burpee seed order should arrive in a few days, and our live plant order will  not be here until mid-march.  We ordered some wonderful flowers and berries, for the rose garden in the back yard.   I hope it is all looking lovely in time for the wedding.