Friday, December 30, 2011

Build a Cold Frame for Ongoing Winter Harvest

Although they have not need its protection yet this winter, my lettuces and spinach are happily growing inside the cold frame while we wait for cold weather.  I planted them inside the box in September with the lid open so the warm weather did not roast them.  Now, when freezing weather threatens, I can close the lid to the box in the late afternoon, the glass lid will hold the heat inside, and I will have fresh greens the next day that are unharmed by frost. 

My husband and I made my cold frame cover from a discarded shower door.  Any glass or Plexiglas door or window would work; the glass allows sunshine and heat to reach the plants inside the cold frame.  My shower door came with the hinge attached which we use to open and close the frame.  If yours does not have a hinge, you could slide it up and down as needed and prop it with a stick; a covering that is lightweight, like Plexiglas, would probably be the best choice.  When the lid is raised, make sure to attach it to the ground in some way so that strong gusts of wind do not suddenly close it; the glass on one of my frames shattered last winter and I will have to cover the frame with plastic this winter. 

Winter greens grow inside the cold frame

We made the sides of my cold frame out of treated lumber.  We caulked the joints and put some weather-stripping along the top of the frame to prevent drafts.  The back of the cold frame is about 18 inches high, and it slopes down to the front at about a 40-degree angle toward the southern sky; the front is about 8 inches high.  This slope is supposed to maximize the amount of captured sunlight.

Options besides boards include stacked hay bales, concrete blocks, or landscape timbers.  Plug as many cracks as you can.  Gardener’s Supply Company carries prefabricated cold frames; harvesting your own salad greens instead of buying them will offset the purchase price quickly.

 Place your cold frame directly on the ground, fill your cold frame with compost-enriched soil, and plant the seeds or transplants.  Because of the greenhouse-like moist environment, seeds sprout quickly and are the most economical choice.  Water the soil when it begins to dry out and fertilize the plants as you would in your garden. 

If the weather forecast is for temperatures in the high 40s or above with sun, prop open the lid of your cold frame to vent excessive heat that might burn the plants.  I have two sticks, one to open the lid just a crack and the other to open it wide for harvest and for very warm days.  If you will not be home, prop the lid open a crack; they have a better chance of surviving the cold weather we get than an afternoon in with temperatures in the sixties closed inside the frame. Lettuce and spinach tolerate temperatures down to the mid-twenties without harm in the open garden; I close my cold frame on nights when the temperature dips into the low twenties and teens.   

The best plants for a cold frame are lettuces, spinach, collards, and other cool-season greens.  Carrots, beets, and parsnips also like the protected environment.  Depending on your cold frame’s interior height, you might also be able to grow broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage.  I also “harden off” transplants, or provide a protected area outside for plants to become gradually accustomed to the outdoors, before I set them out in the garden in the cold frame.
Happy salad greens

When you are home during the holidays, maybe you can find time to make yourself or the gardener on your list a cold frame as a belated Christmas gift. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

I Don't Think I Will Eat My Chickens

My husband, Scott, and I have had many discussions about the fate of my chickens once they stop laying eggs.  We bought nine chickens, assuming that a couple of them would die in the hands of an inexperienced chicken-keeper, but they all lived.  When I bought them at the feed store, they were a couple of weeks old, so the weakest chicks in the batch had probably already died. 
My fortified chicken coop has kept predators away, although I am aware that one could gain entrance any night, especially if the power goes out to the portable electronet fencing.  We deliberately did not name the chickens, although I didn’t know how I’d feel about eating the chickens after they quit laying, because I don’t need more pets to live in my house and require veterinary care.  I have two very spoiled dachshunds. 
A Barred Plymouth Rock and a Buff Orpington chicken finishing off the pea crop

I told Scott that some of them would probably die of natural causes anyway, and he said, not, I don’t think, intending it to be a compliment, “The way you take care of those chickens they’ll live forever.”   I make sure they have fresh food and water, and clean ground to explore as often as possible.  I love seeing any creature doing what they were meant to do, which in the case of chickens is scratching for bugs and tidbits of food on the ground.  They scratch first with one foot, then the other.  Their eyes are on the sides of their heads so they must turn their heads to the side to see the ground, and they search the ground for something to eat, peck at it, and move on. 

They love loose, dry soil, and they dig out a hole, scratch dirt into their feathers, wiggle and adjust their feathers to move the dirt about, and bask in the sun while taking a dust bath.  They are unhappy when, after a rain, there is no dry dirt in which to bathe.   Watching contented chickens is like seeing children playing, deeply involved in some imaginative game of their own invention that does not rely on electronics or cartoon characters, or a dog snuggled in his bed asleep before a fire.   And just because the chickens are not pets, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make them happy and give them opportunities to do what they’d do if they weren’t in captivity.  They love fresh green grass this time of year, and they rush towards the new grass made available when I move their pen.

Chickens, when allowed to experience natural cycles of light and dark, lay fewer eggs as the days shorten.  Their bodies are very sensitive to daylight and to darkness; as the days shorten when the Winter Solstice approaches later this month, they lay fewer eggs, and as the days lengthen as the Summer Solstice approaches in June, they lay more eggs.  During the summer, they laid seven eggs almost every day; recently, I have been getting up to four eggs daily.

The eggs we get are plenty for us even during the winter, but some chicken-keepers keep a light on in the coop for part of the night to make the chickens continue to lay eggs.  In commercial chicken houses, where farmers keep chickens in cages so small they cannot spread their wings, the lights are on all the time to trick the chickens into laying constantly.   If you buy your eggs at the farmers market, expect the farmer to have fewer eggs in the winter; get there early to purchase yours.  Chickens also molt, during which time they lose their feathers, regrow new ones, and cease laying entirely before resuming laying a couple of months later.

Scott says he wants to put them in the stew pot when they stop laying eggs in a few years.  I doubt I will be able to eat a creature I have taken care of daily for so long, and I do not know if he would be able to either.  I know that my grandparents would laugh at that notion, but I didn’t grow up eating chickens from the yard as they did, either, and my family will not go hungry if we don’t eat the chickens. 
I won’t take them to the veterinarian if they become sick, although I won’t allow them to suffer, but until they die of natural causes, I’ll give them the best care possible.  Maybe we’ll get some more chickens that we will designate as birds for meat from the beginning, and we’ll harvest them when they are a few months old, before they’ve been around very long. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A few weeks ago, I attended the South Carolina Agriculture Council meeting to hear a discussion about “GMOs, Organic Farming, and Organic Certification.”  Readers of this column know I am biased against the use of GMOs or, genetically modified organisms, in agriculture.  It seems somehow wrong to insert the genes of a flounder, for example, into a tomato so that the tomato will tolerate colder temperatures, and then to eat this “Franken food.”

 Dan Pitts, the Technical Development Representative from Monsanto, the company that was one of the pioneers of GMO agriculture, gave presentation on using GMOs in agriculture to “grow better crops and use less resources to do so.”  With GMO corn, for example, scientists insert the pesticide BT, or bacillus thuringiensis, into the corn genes so that when a caterpillar eats the corn, it also eats the pesticide, which kills the caterpillar.  Farmers do not have to spray pesticides on the fields, and, as Mr. Pitts illustrated with statistics, farmers no longer put millions of pounds of chemicals into the environment.  Corn yields have increased.  With Roundup® Ready Soybeans, farmers do not have to till the soil and cause erosion; they spray the herbicide, which kills the weeds but not the soybeans.

I asked Mr. Pitts about reports I have heard about pollen from GMO plants blowing into fields of plants that are not GMO, and producing plants that have the GMO genes.  He said, “Coexistence of different agricultural production methods working effectively side by side is well established and has a long, successful history in agriculture.”  He also says, “according to USDA’s organic rules, the inadvertent presence of GMO in an organic canola field would not constitute a violation of the organic program regulations nor render the canola ineligible for organic certification.” 

One of the arguments in favor of using GMOs is that we need increased food to feed our increasing population, and without GMOs to increase the yield, people will starve.  What has always been interesting to me about this argument is that the commonly produced GMO plants: field corn, soybeans, cotton, and tobacco are not edible in their unprocessed state.  Field corn is fed to animals on feedlots or turned into high-fructose corn syrup; some soybeans may be turned into tofu but most of them are turned into oil or other processed products.  Mr. Pitts said that Monsanto has recently developed a GMO sweet corn that will be edible in its natural state.

For a different perspective on farming, Eric McClam, a Tulane graduate in architecture and manager of City Roots farm in Columbia, discussed their farming practices.  The three-acre farm, in the Rosewood Neighborhood of Columbia, on property owned by the City of Columbia, “produce[s] clean, healthy, sustainably grown products while enhancing and educating our community about the benefits of locally grown food, composting, vermicomposting and other environmentally friendly farming practices,” according to the website 

City Roots won the 2010 Downtown Pinnacle award from the International Downtown Association.  More than 600 cities competed for the award, which recognizes innovative development in downtown areas of cities.  City Roots Farm and the City of Columbia are proud of this recognition of their partnership in using land that might otherwise be wasted in an urban area. 

Not only do they use no GMO seeds, but they also use no pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers except manure produced by the laying hens and compost made from crop wastes and vegetable refuse from grocery stores and restaurants.  Although they follow organic farming practices, McClam says, “Organic certification does not make sense for us because we know our end user and can talk with them about farming practices directly.  Organic certification for 60 varieties of plants is a lot of paperwork.”  The farm sells at farmers markets, local stores, and local restaurants. 

Through succession planting, where there is another crop ready to go into the ground as soon as one comes out, and organic, sustainable practices, City Roots produces copious amounts of locally grown, nutritious food for the people of Columbia, without using GMOS or buying and applying pesticides and fertilizers.  Not buying pesticides or fertilizers keeps their costs down, and gives the farm more money to spend on its biggest expense: human labor to care for the plants.    

What a contrast City Roots is from a sterile Midwestern cornfield where nothing but corn grows and farmers have to tend the crop in machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  I do not know the solution to feeding the world, but GMOs scare me.  Mr. Pitts says that Monsanto did many safety tests to make sure the GMOs will not harm the environment or people, but the technology has only existed since the 1980s.  How often have things we thought were safe turned out to be dangerous after the passage of time?