Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Start Your Own Transplants with Grow Lights

 Even though it's cold outside, I've been gardening indoors for a couple of weeks.  My husband I made these lights many winters ago, and I use them every winter to grow seedlings.  I don't have a greenhouse, but these lights allow me to start my seedlings inside the house.
Seedlings grow inside my house
I sowed seed in these pots last Thursday.
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.  I have never used the lights designed for plants, but my seedlings are growing too tall and leggy, so I have ordered some lights that have all the correct light waves needed by plants.
Kale seedlings strain to reach the 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.

growlights 001

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.  If you don’t want to build your own grow light, look online for premade versions.

If you want premade grow lights, light bulbs, or other seed starting supplies, consider purchasing these products:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Tomorrow Night We're Getting Some Real February Weather

...and I hope my garden survives.  It's supposed to get down into single digits tomorrow night.  Yesterday there was freezing rain and we had no electricity for 7 hours, and today the wind blew hard enough to slam car doors.  However, all my row covers remained in place thanks to clothespins, wire on top of the covers, and boards weighting down the sides.  I have baby broccoli plants under two layers of row cover.  I also have 14 pounds of potatoes planted a couple of inches deep.  I hope the plants survive this weather!

For my chickens, who live in a chicken tractor, I laid a combination of blankets and siding against the screened sides of the chicken tractor and weighed them down with sticks and stones.  Adult chickens cope with the cold well (at least any cold we have here in South Carolina), as long as they have shelter from the wind and the rain.  The wild birds survive, and chickens who live outside all the time can survive too.  People who live in cold climates have coats and blankets filled with down, and chickens have their own layer of down growing next to their bodies.  It's safer to allow them to cope with the cold than to put a heat lamp inside your chicken house--many people have lost both chickens and chicken house from fires begun by heat lamps.  It's hard to keep heat lamps safe from birds that can fly.  

Sunday, February 15, 2015

February in the Garden


We've had nice weather here in SC for the past couple of weeks, and  I've been busy turning in cover crops of clover, rye, and turnip greens to enrich the soil.


I've sowed seeds of spring vegetables under floating row covers.  I place the row cover over wire hoops I cut from wire used for chain-link fencing protect seedlings.  The cover protects the baby seedlings from wind, driving rain, and raises the air temperature a few degrees.  

Last weekend, the temperature was nearly 70 degrees and the sun shone all weekend.  I opened the windows in the house to give us fresh air, and I planted 14 pounds of potatoes.  To the left are potatoes I planted a week ago.  To the right, spinach and lettuce enjoy their blanket.


This will be my tomato patch.  Instead of turning in the entire row of cover crop, I dug individual holes for the tomatoes and turned in the crop in that area only.  By the time I'm ready to plant the tomatoes, the cover crop under the soil will have decomposed and enriched the soil.  This location got a lot of traffic from my chickens over the winter, so I hope it will have plenty of nutrients for healthy tomatoes.  The heat should kill the Austrian Winter Peas and rye and will make a mulch.


I love working in the garden in the winter.  Instead of being disgustingly sweaty in equally gross clothes, as I am in the summer, I can wear decent clothes and look like those photos of gardeners I see in gardening magazines that must live in cooler climates.  You know, there they are trellising the tomatoes and picking beans, and they appear ready for an LL Bean cover shot.  Not that I ever look ready for a magazine shoot, (ha!) but when I trellis tomatoes and pick beans I'm covered with dirt, insect bites, and sweat.  At least in the winter I could, theoretically, go directly to the grocery store, without a shower, from the garden.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Do You Have Seed Catalogs?

When the heat of summer is a memory only rekindled by too much time close to the fire, and while no insects molest my plants aside from easily killed aphids or slugs, I can imagine the perfect garden.  This year, I think, I will dodge drought, insects, and disease.  Weeds will cheerfully refuse to germinate, while every seed I plant will sprout perfect leaves.

Of course, seed catalogs exist to make the gardener forget the troubles of last season and to dream about the coming year.  The photographs of perfect vegetables and weedless beds help perpetuate this delusion.  I engage in this fantasy, and I love it.

My favorite catalogs remain the same year after year.  I usually order seeds from Johnny's Selected Seeds.  They give cultural information and sell many disease-resistant tomato seeds. Maybe this year will be the year I try to graft some of my own tomato plants onto disease-resistant rootstock I purchase from Johnny’s Seeds.

To graft heirloom tomato plants onto disease-resistant rootstock, the nursery grows plants that are resistant to certain diseases, and plants that aren’t resistant but that produce tasty fruit.  Then, horticulturists graft, or cause the tasty-tomato plant to grow onto the root of the disease-resistant plant, causing the resulting plant to be both disease-resistant and a producer of the desired variety of tomato.

Last year, I ordered heirloom tomatoes grafted onto disease resistant rootstock from White Flower Farm, and, although they were expensive, they did continue to bear the heirloom varieties, that I cannot grow, all season.  The folks at Jung Seed have sent me some samples of their disease-resistant tomato plants, as well as some perennials, and I’m pleased with the tomatoes they produced.  The perennials they sent me are thriving.  

Heavenly Seed LLC, based in Anderson, SC, provides the least glamorous catalog but the most generous amounts of seed for the money; I buy most of my seeds from Heavenly Seed.
I have ordered fruit trees, vines, and bushes from Stark Bro’s  and from Ison’s Nursery in Georgia.  I am pleased with their products.

Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply is a California company with nearly every gardening/farming item imaginable.  Peaceful Valley’s catalog and website provide information, obscure organic pest control products, and season-extension products.
I sometimes order seeds from Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization from Iowa, which sells exclusively heirloom seeds and John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds.  I visited Seed Savers Exchange in 2011 and enjoyed the beautiful gardens and store.    

In 2013, I visited Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  It has one of the largest collections of heirloom seeds in the US.  Pinetree Garden Seeds sells small, inexpensive packets of seeds that are useful for small gardens or for trying out many varieties of seeds.

Visit these websites and request catalogs, or peruse the catalogs online, and you will be able to imagine and to plan the garden of your dreams, unmolested by insects, disease, heat, or drought.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Eating My Chickens

As I helped unload my chickens at the slaughterhouse on the early December morning, I experienced a mixture of emotions.  I felt relief that my two- hour trip with 17 chickens in my SUV was over, and I felt satisfied that I had finished the job I began 6 weeks ago.  My husband and I arose during the night, when the chickens were still in their chicken-coma of sleep, and put them, inside pet carriers, in the plastic-lined back of my SUV.  I rolled down the windows and blasted the heat the entire trip, and it was not as bad as I had imagined.  Although we have a truck, I did not want to expose the chickens to a 2-hour ride in the open air in December.  After a thorough airing, vacuuming, and cleaning, my SUV's smell returned to normal.  
Calm birds leaving for the slaughterhouse
 I felt pride that my birds had redder combs, brighter eyes, and more darkly pigmented skin on their feet than some other birds awaiting slaughter that had not, perhaps, seen as much of  the sunshine and the green grass as mine had enjoyed.  I also felt sad that their lives were ending so that I could eat.  I said a prayer of thanksgiving to God, and I thanked the birds for their lives.

The chickens had no idea what was about to happen.  Poultry do not worry about tomorrow.  When they arrived at the slaughterhouse, a little after sunrise, they were barely awake.  They sat calmly in the crate, and then the workers took them inside the facility, put them in a carbon-dioxide chamber, where they went to sleep and died.  No drama of a chicken running about with her head cut off for these birds. 

A few days later, I returned to pick up my meat.  The box of chicks, weighing a couple of pounds, which I opened on October 20, had turned into nearly 75 pounds of meat by December 3.  
This is what I picked up a few days later
Was this a cost-effective undertaking?  As long as I do not pay myself an hourly wage for my labors, it was.  Considering the cost of the chicks, feed, and processing, I paid about $3.50 a pound for free-range meat (and mine got more free-range and green grass than many chickens labeled free-range).  The $3.50 a pound applies to all cuts of meat—so I got boneless skinless chicken breast for the same price I got chicken necks.   I did not include the cost of fuel to transport the chicks and meat or the cost of electricity for the heat lamps in this calculation.

They were not organic because organic chicken feed is not available for sale in my area to anyone (unless you want to pay to have it shipped from another state, which is cost-prohibitive), but they did have green grass and some insects and worms, which is more than many chickens raised certified organic from the grocery store receive.  I did not medicate or vaccinate them.  Compared to other free-range meat I have purchased—free-range boneless skinless chicken breast can be nearly $10 a pound--this was a bargain.
To reduce the costs, I could have slaughtered them myself, but I was not and am not able or ready to do that.  Maybe someday.  I could have also purchased them in August when the heating bills would have been much lower.  I will definitely do this project in a warmer month next time.

We have had several chicken dinners.  The meat is delicious, fresh and tender.  The fat is a deep yellow thanks to the birds’ exposure to sun and green grass, instead of the pale beige fat found on store-bought birds.  I know that these birds had a good life.
Our first meal of chicken wings
My children are young enough that this seems like something normal.  Eating animals you either raise yourself, or kill yourself,  is normal, and it's what people have done for the entirety of human history, except for the past 50 years or so when it became normal to have your meat raised by someone else so you didn't have to participate in the messiness of life and of death.

From the day the chicks came home, we all knew we were going to eat these birds, and although my children had moments of sadness about it, as we all did, I made it very clear to them (and reiterated it to myself) that anytime we eat chicken meat, the food started out as fluffy chicks.  I made sure I could not change my mind about the fate of these chicks by ordering all male chicks.  I couldn't have 17 roosters.  My 5-year-old horrified a new babysitter by saying, with delight, "We have baby chicks in our garage and we're going to EAT them!"  That gave me an opportunity to talk about the origins of our food to another person who eats meat but doesn't give much thought to its origins.

If you'd like to raise chicks yourself,  Murray McMurray Hatchery will begin shipping chicks in late January or early February.  Be sure to read and to follow the directions carefully about raising the chicks, especially if you purchase a hybrid breed.  Local feed stores will carry chicks beginning in early February.