Monday, February 25, 2013

Fence=1, Dog=0

Yesterday afternoon, while I was not at home, my husband, Scott, said a dog came into our yard.  We live in the country, and even though our county has leash laws requiring people to take their dogs out on a leash, many people ignore these laws and allow their dogs to wander around the neighborhood.

I don't mind wandering dogs as long as they are friendly and well-behaved.  This dog was neither friendly nor well-behaved, and he had an interest in my chickens.

Scott stalked him as he wandered the yard, while wondering if he'd need to encourage the dog to leave our home with force.  Mr. Cuteypants saw the dog and began his squawking alarm, and the dog, encouraged that such an animated creature would make a tasty plaything, tried to discover a method of entry through the fence, made of electrified netting from Premier 1 Supplies.

The fence did its job, and gave him a solid shock on the nose, producing a yelp from the pest.  The dog, discouraged from his pursuit of feathered playthings, ran the 250 feet or so from the fence and the chickens to the road without stopping.  I hope he learned his lesson and will not return.

Monday, February 18, 2013

RIP, Pearl

My experiment in raising guineas has not been successful.  As I mentioned in past articles, a black snake killed three of the guinea keets when they were babies, and another one hung himself, accidentally, on a protruding nail inside the guinea house.  We got them because we wanted them to provide natural pest control in the garden.

The remaining two guineas, The Pearl (a male), and Mr. Cuteypants (a female, named by my 6-year-old daughter, Ella), survived and went to live with the chickens.  They refused to live in the guinea palace my husband, Scott, built for them, and they could not figure out how to fly into and out of the chicken pen to roam the yard to eat insects, so most of the time they stayed in the pen with the chickens. 

The Pearl decided he was king of all of the birds and spent most of his time chasing the other birds away from the feeder.  Before the guineas arrived, my chickens had no apparent pecking order and were content with each other. Afterwards, three of my Americana hens spent their days hiding from him, and I fed them in a different spot from The Pearl.  The Pearl chased Mr. Cuteypants too, but not as consistently as he chased the other birds.  When the guineas flew out of the pen, the chickens seemed much more at peace; they could eat and move around without worrying about an attack from The Pearl. 

Scott told me to leave the guineas outside and they would eventually figure out how to get back inside the pen.  Although they spent many nights outside because they were too wild and too stupid to cooperate with my efforts to get them back inside the pen, I always tried to get them back inside the fence.  Unlike the chickens, I could not pick up a sleeping guinea and move it to a new location.  Guineas sleep with one eye open, I believe, and they are as frantic if caught, as would any other wild bird.

A month or so ago I decided to leave the guineas on their own outside the pen.  I was afraid The Pearl’s constant harassment of the chickens would keep them from laying eggs, and I felt sorry for the chicken’s loss of a peaceful existence.  I planned to put food and water outside the pen, but to let them find their own bed, whether they figured out how to get back inside the pen, slept on the ground, or found a pine tree in which to roost.

The next morning, The Pearl was gone.  Even though he chased the other birds, he would defend them from predators, and I imagine he probably sacrificed himself to save Mr. Cuteypants.  Mr. Cuteypants behaves himself around the chickens, and so I put her to bed with the chickens.  With The Pearl gone, the chickens have been much happier and at peace, and have started laying eggs again.  The increasing day length tells their bodies it is time to lay eggs again, but the lack of stress probably helps too. 

One night I heard Mr. Cuteypants calling through the darkness and found her roosting on top of the permanent chicken pen at the opposite end of the yard from the chickens.  I left her there for the night, and said a prayer for her safety.  The next morning, she was gone.  I saw some feathers around the chicken pen containing the chickens, and I thought she might have come to the chicken pen in the early morning hours and been taken by an owl.  I waited all morning for her return, and did not tell my daughter that she was missing.
Just as I accepted her loss, and went to find my daughter to tell her about the loss, Mr. Cuteypants walked across the yard toward the pen.  Although she was hungry and did not squawk quite as loudly as she did before, she was not harmed.  By the end of the day, Mr. Cuteypants found her voice, and since then has been living peacefully with the chickens.  I removed Mr. Cuteypants from the mouth of a blacksnake when he was a keet, and he has survived predator attacks and other adventures.  Apparently, he is supposed to live here with us, and his antics entertain us. 
The Pearl and Mr. Cuteypants

A couple of weeks after I originally wrote this article, we were walking in the woods near the creek and found a pile of Pearl feathers.  Rest in peace, Pearl.  Mr. Cuteypants makes enough noise for the both of you.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Build Grow Lights for Easy Seed-Starting

Before spring arrives, I will start seeds of cool-weather loving plants, even though, because of the mild temperatures this winter, my fall-planted vegetables are still alive.  My lettuce looks brown, and my spinach is speckled with holes, but the plants will probably recover if I cut away the damaged leaves.  The collards, Swiss chard, and cabbage are beautiful, and the cabbage is even forming heads.

This week, I will start seeds for cool-weather loving plants, such as broccoli, spinach, and lettuce inside under lights for a spring crop.  My husband, Scott, and I built the grow lights that I use to provide a warm, safe place to start seeds.  Making a set of grow lights is a perfect project for a winter day. 

To make grow lights, you will need lumber (figure out how much you will need based on your measurements), nails, and hooks from which you will hang the lights.  We got three fluorescent shop lights to provide adequate illumination across the width of the seedling flats.  Stores sell expensive lights specifically designed for plants, but they are unnecessary for starting seedlings.
My grow lights

To replicate my frame, make a frame wide enough to hold a nursery flat, or with an interior width of about 22 ½ inches.  Make the frame long enough to accommodate the lights and four nursery flats; mine is about 4 feet, 3 inches long.  Add two posts on each end and a beam down the middle of the frame, and make two arms across the beam to hold the lights.  The arms are about 22 inches off the floor.  Screw the hooks in at the appropriate place on the arms, and hang the lights from the chains.  I use an old shower curtain under the grow lights to protect the floor from water, and I place the lights on a timer for 12 hours of light a day.

When I first plant the seeds, I hang the lights as low as possible; as the seedlings grow, I raise them so the lights are just above the foliage.  Fluorescent lights give off very little heat so they will not scorch the foliage as long as they are not actually touching it.    I use a heat mat, which is a waterproof pad that provides the seedlings with bottom heat to help them germinate quickly, under the seed trays if the weather outside is very cold.  It helped my heat loving plants grow well, but it made my cold-tolerant plants, like broccoli, grow too quickly.

Grow lights make the process of starting seeds easier because I don’t have to move my seedlings around the house as the sun moves to make sure they have adequate exposure to light, and because I don’t have to take them outside for sun until the weather is consistently warm.  Seedlings, like all baby creatures, appreciate consistent warmth, moisture, and food, and keeping the seedlings under grow lights helps them thrive. For Seed Starting Supplies, search online or visit local garden centers. If you don’t want to build your own grow lights, try one like the one below.


If you want a mini-greenhouse, try this one:


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Plan Your Garden Before You Buy Seeds

While you are waiting for the seed catalogs to arrive in the mail, or if you are already enjoying the print or electronic version of the catalogs, make a garden plan before you purchase any seeds.  It is fun, of course, to choose new varieties of any intriguing seed.  Without a plan, you may waste many seeds, and you risk planting the same crop in the same place year after year and causing diseases or soil nutrient deficiencies.  

If you prefer to plan your garden on the computer, try Mother Earth News'  garden planning software.  I prefer a paper, pencil, and ruler to do the actual planning, although the information available at the Mother Earth News website helps with planning on paper and on the computer.  

I draw an outline of the garden, somewhat to scale, including fences, permanent beds, and paths, and I make copies of the original for future use.  It is easier to motivate myself to fill in the blanks in subsequent years than to start anew. 

One of the main reasons I plan my garden is to make sure I rotate the crops that are most susceptible to disease and attack by pests.  There are basic groups of plants, and I try to avoid planting them in the same spot more frequently than once every three or four years. 

According to the Today's Homeowner website,  an easy way to divide the garden is to consider the plant’s products: leaves or flowers (like lettuce and broccoli), fruits (like tomatoes, potatoes, and corn), roots (carrots, beets, and onions), and legumes that feed the soil (like beans and peas). 

Tomatoes and potatoes, for example, remove many nutrients from the soil in order to grown, and they are susceptible to the same diseases.  If you plant them in the same place year after year, yield will eventually deteriorate.  To replace nutrients the potatoes used, plant beans or another legume, which release nitrogen into the soil, after the potatoes.  Diseases and pests that affect potatoes do not usually affect beans, and the pests and diseases should decrease in the absence of host plants.

On my garden plan, I write the crops I planted in different spots.  I usually have separate plans for each season because I plant a garden all year.  When it is time to plant a new crop, I make sure to put it in a bed that has not had a member of its group in a few years.  

Depending on the level of detail of the records you want, you can write “beans” on one area and “tomatoes” on another or you can write down the variety’s name.  I grow several bean varieties, for example, so I write down each variety.  I use labels on the rows too, but the writing on the stake often fades or the stakes disappear by the end of the growing season. Keeping detailed records of yields of the different varieties helps me eliminate varieties that do not perform well and buy more of those that do well in the garden.