Growing for Chickens

What to grow for your chickens

By Sandy SwegelChicken Eggs

Reading our Facebook posts lately on how yummy eggs from backyard chickens are got me thinking about what makes home grown eggs taste so much better than store eggs.

A varied diet helps a lot. Commercial chickens pretty much get a straight corn-based diet with vitamins and minerals added in. Happy home chickens can still eat commercial food, but they usually gets lots of food scraps too. That’s when the eggs start tasting better. When the chickens get lots of protein like bugs and worms, that’s when the eggs get really good.

Here’s what my chickens love:

Kitchen Scraps

Chickens eat kitchen scraps

Any and all scraps go to the chicken. Even meat if it is cooked. (The shocking secret I learned about chickens is that their favorite food is chicken….especially the scraps from fried chicken.) Chicken aren’t terribly smart in general, but they are savvy about food. If something is moldy or too full of pungent foods like onions, they just scratch it aside looking for bits of fruit or tomatoes or meat. Their favorite foods are things kids like. Noodles are a big hit. So are cherry tomatoes.

Weeds and Garden Waste
All the crab grass, dandelions, seed heads, dock leaves, grass clippings etc go into the chicken run. They go for the greens and seeds first and push the other stuff around. Grass is apparently yummier in the Spring than in mid-summer when they just look at me and say “Meh.”

Bugs
This is the best secret to having delicious eggs….lots of proteins especially from living crawling things. All those kitchen scraps and weeds that don’t get eaten get raked into the corner and turn into compost with lots of earthworms. At some point in their random scratching, the chickens figure this out and turn the compost pile with great delight. Somehow plenty of earthworms manage to survive. I throw in extra bugs too: slugs, cabbage worms, box elder bugs, maggots, anything I don’t want in the garden. One other icky-to-think-about critter they really love to eat are mice.

Spent beer grains
Our local breweries put out their spent grains and hops for farmers and gardeners to recycle. These grains are usually a bit fermented which makes the chickens very very happy. The fermentation adds extra nutrition, happy, slightly drunken chickens make delicious eggs.

More greensChickens in compost bin
My chickens have to stay in a fenced run because of the large number of fox and coyotes in our area. So I plant food all around the edges of the run so they can reach their heads through the fence to nibble but not actually destroy the plants by pulling them up. Currently growing are comfrey, chard (their favorite, I think they like the salt), kale, and wild grasses and dandelions (they like the flowers).

So plant for your chickens and they will reward you with the best tasting eggs and lots of entertainment.

Photo credits:
http://www.urbanfoodgarden.org/main/composting/composting—compost-bins-in-chicken-run.htm

Stay the Course: End of Season Gardening Tips.

by Sandy Swegel

It may still be blistering hot, but gardeners, especially in Zone 5, are on the home stretch. Days are getting noticeably shorter. Much of the work of the year culminates in the next month as it’s time to bring the harvest home. You have to pay extra attention in the next few weeks so you get the best harvest possible.

Keep the water steady.
This is not the time to skip watering for several days. Here’s the bad cycle. You forget to water for a day or two. Then you go out and put the water on for hours to compensate. This is a sure recipe for split fruit, especially tomatoes, and reduced fruit production.

 

Stay after the powdery mildew.
The mildew can be crazy on the squash and melons this time of year. Don’t let the whole vine turn to mildew. At the least, pull off the badly diseased leaves to keep the disease from spreading to the whole plant. Those squash, pumpkins and melons can still put out a lot of good fruit if they have some healthy leaves to photosynthesize.

Keep harvesting.
The more you harvest, the more your plants keep putting out new fruit. Don’t lose courage now just because your kitchen is overflowing with food to be processed or given away. Keep things in a cool area if needed till you get to it.

Consider a light fertilizing.
Some plants have really been putting out and spending themselves for you. I sometimes do a light foliar feed of kelp or other liquid organic fertilizers to keep the plants’ spirits up on these stressful long work days. I think the kelp helps with resisting disease too.

The season may have a long way to go…don’t get distracted by school startups and thoughts of Fall. Your garden’s glory days are here.

 

 

Photo credit:
www.rosalindcreasy.com/edible-garden-how-to/
smallimperfectgarden.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/picking-tomatoes-shouldnt-be-this-challenging/

 

Cool Off Fast! – Agua Fresca

by Sandy Swegel

My basic remedy for hot July days is to bend over and run the hose over my head, but a more attractive and effective way to cool off is to make an Agua Fresca (refreshing water), the great fruit or vegetable drink of Mexico and other southern regions. I’ve been making Agua Frescas all weekend.

The Agua Fresca I first enjoyed from my friend Alfredo’s family was cucumber and lime juice.  Then one day we had watermelon Agua Fresca and I was in heaven.  Both were very cooling and refreshing.  What intrigued me most is that these were two of the foods my acupuncturist recommended to me.  TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) has diagnoses of “heat” in the body.  I often get this diagnosis and my doctor suggests three vegetables/fruits that are especially cooling to the body from a TCM energetic point of view…not just temperature:  Cucumber, celery and watermelon.  Turns out that ancient wisdom from TCM is the same as ancient wisdom from Mexican families. “Gotta love it” as a friend says.

There are lots of recipes on the web, but the concept is simple:

Blender 6 cups water 1 pound of Fruit or vegetable:  cucumber, watermelon are traditional. Also try melon, raspberries, strawberries, celery, herbs like lemon balm or basil or mint. Sugar (to taste) 1/4  to 1/2 cup.  Lime to taste. Run the blender to pulverize the vegetables or fruit and lime.  Strain if needed. Pour over ice cubes and add mint or cucumber slice or lime slice garnish.

Variations: Slushy:  Use only half the water. Run the blender a second time filled with ice cubes to get a slushy drink. Sorbet:  Make an agua fresca and put it in the ice cream maker for 20 minutes to make sorbet. Alcohol:  Rum, tequila or vodka added make excellent drinks or sorbets!

Stay Cool and Be Happy.

Photo credits:

http://www.williams-sonoma.com/recipe/raspberry-mint-agua-fresca.html

Is It Time?

by Sandy Swegel

Is it too late?  Can I still plant seeds?  These are the questions I heard this week.  In our Zone 5 area, garden centers are already starting to discount plants and seasonal workers will get laid off by the 4th of July. Does that mean it’s too late to plant seeds and you should just buy the biggest plant you can find?

Generally, the answer is, of course, there is still time to plant seeds…It’s only June!  For gardeners, the truest answer is always, “It Depends.”

There are a few seeds that it is too late to plant. In Zone 5 or other short growing season areas, it’s too late to plant watermelon or winter squash or tomatoes by seed.  The “days to maturity” info on the back of the seed package tells you that you need 90-100 days before the plant makes its first ripe fruit.  100 days from now is mid-September before you might get a watermelon…that doesn’t work when we might have frost by then…or at the very least cold nights.

The flip side of this question is, “Are there seeds I should plant rather than buy plants?”  Absolutely.  It makes no sense to buy a broccoli or cauliflower plant now for $4.00 when it’s just going to bolt in the summer heat.  It likes cooler weather.  And you could probably buy the broccoli itself cheaper.  But in a couple of weeks, market farmers are starting their broccoli seeds to get their fall crops going. Planting broccoli and cauliflower soon is a great idea!

Annuals are still a great bargain to plant.  I went into sticker shock when I went plant shopping this year.  Plant prices are up about 30 percent in my area.  For less than the price of a 4-inch pot with a marigold, I can get one seed packet of marigolds and have dozens and dozens of plants in bloom in only 45 days.  They’ll be super cute all over the garden and in the vegetable garden, they’ll help repel pests.

It’s the same for cosmos and California poppies and zinnias and all the annual wildflower mixes.  There’s still time.  For perennial seed, some plants might not bloom till next year, but the plants will be strong and it’s a lot easier to start seeds now in the garden where you want them to grow instead of inside under lights in the middle of winter.

Buying bedding plants is great for instant gratification, but gardeners know that if you want a garden full of hundreds of flowers (without breaking the bank), SEEDS are the way to go!

So there IS still time. Lots of time for annual flowers like cosmos and zinnias and sunflowers and bachelor buttons and zinnias and for big flowery herbs.  Then there all those vegetables to seed.  And the perennials you are admiring in bloom now. You get the idea. There is plenty of time to plant by seed and enjoy them this year.

 

Heirloom vegetable seed

Wildflower Mixes

Pollinator mixes

Grow Your Own Food: Best Return on Investment.

by Sandy Swegel

There are so many vegetables you can grow in your garden. If only there was enough time. If you have limited time or space for your garden, think about what is the best return on your investment of time and money as well as the best outcome of flavor and nutrition.  Three things I grow even if I don’t have time to grow anything else are:

Salad greens. Loose-leaf lettuces, spinach, kale, chard, and arugula are up and ready to eat in as little as three weeks after planting.  You can pick what you need for tonight’s salad, and let the plant continue to grow for another night’s salad.  Baby greens and mixed lettuces cost $6 per pound add up at the grocery…and they aren’t necessarily that fresh…sometimes they’ve been traveling in a semi-trailer from California for a week already.  Grow your own greens to get maximum nutrition and taste for a couple of bucks worth of seed.

Tomatoes.  You’ve tasted one of those grocery store tomatoes that look perfect and taste like absolutely nothing?  Enough said. You have to grow tomatoes because homegrown tomatoes taste so much better than anything you can buy.  But tomatoes have also gotten really expensive.  One or two tomato plants easily save you a couple hundred dollars if you regularly eat tomatoes in your salads and sandwiches.  Cherry tomato plants are especially prolific.

Herbs. Fresh herbs are the best way to give oomph to your cooking.  They taste so much better than dried herbs and can often star in a simple dish …such as a basil leaves served with mozzarella and tomato.  Many herbs are perennial (like thyme and oregano) and only have to be planted once.  Annual herbs such as basil and dill produce lots and lots of flavorful leaves.

It’s always fun to grow everything there is to grow, but if you’re strapped for time or space, let the local farmers grow the long-season crops like winter squash, the root crops like onions and carrots, or the water-hogging melons.  You’ll be enjoying your own magnificent home-grown healthful salads all season.

Watermelon Crop Circles

by Sandy Swegel

Nature is so darn weird some days.  My friend Lara found four watermelons with this a design in them growing in her farm field.  Her neighbors are, um, quirky enough that one of them might have spent the night carving the design.  But a quick google for “crop circles and watermelons” turned up more equally cryptic images.

Most likely these watermelons weren’t carved by industrious aliens.  Designs like this can be caused by spot or mosaic viruses   Last year, we saw lots of the Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus that wiped out tomato plants locally.  Vining plants like cucumbers and papayas are also susceptible.

Most of these plant viruses are spread by insects, often aphids or thrips.  An infected insect goes from plant to plant spreading the virus.  Sometimes the effects are inconsequential and sometimes, as happened with the papaya ringspot virus, most of the crop can be wiped out, endangering the economic status of the entire growing area. Insects often overwinter in debris in the field or nearby, so clearing out your garden after harvest can sometimes break the disease cycle.

Not much you can do once you have the virus. Sometimes they don’t spread, and other times they wipe out the field. Lara only has four fruit so far so she’s hopeful it’s an isolated problem.

Why is tidying up always the answer to most problems?

Harvesting Melons

by Sandy Swegel

My gardening buddies had an ice tea party at a nearby market farm this week.  Long hot summer days are ripening melons and we were eager to do some taste testing, but how do you know when melons are ripe?  They all look great.  They have a good size.  We were crouching among the plants thumping and sniffing, trying to find a perfect melon. And somebody pulled a beautifulOregano 952700-BBB baby watermelon that was the darkest green…we figured it had to be ripe.  Nope, cutting it open revealed flesh that had only just started turning pink.  If only there were some way to glue the melon back together.

Farmer Mimi finally took pity on us and showed us how to know if melons are ripe.

She grows two general types of melons in her field:  watermelons and “slip” melons such as cantaloupe and muskmelons that slip off the vine when they are ready.

The slip melons are easy: they are ripe when they easily slip from the plant when you tug lightly. If they don’t come off the vine easily, leave them a few more days.  Muskmelons will also smell wonderful when they are ripe.

Watermelons don’t slip but they are just as easy to know when they’re ready if you look at the plant.  Very close to each fruit, a tendril grows.  It’s usually green and curly.  When it dries up completely and turns brown or black, the fruit is ripe.  That was so much easier than thumping every watermelon in sight.

We also got a great growing tip for getting lots of melons.  Melons like hot days and warm nights.  Here in Colorado, we have hot days but the nights cool off. Good for us but not so much for the melons.  Mimi told us that black plastic mulch under your melons will significantly increase how many melons you get and speed up how soon they are ready.

In these hot summer days, we definitely need more melons.

For everything you ever need to know about growing melons, using plastic mulch and knowing when to harvest: http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/M1262.html

How to Make Garden Friends

by Sandy Swegel

Many of the ideas for this blog come from questions I hear from an email list of gardeners I belong to.  I introduced a new gardener to our group this week and she was so grateful to suddenly have a whole network of people she could turn to when she had a question.  She’ll soon realize what we all know:  that it is so cool to have so many plant-geek friends.

Our group started rather accidentally, but you can start your own low maintenance group of garden friends.  You’ll learn lots about gardening and many of your gardening buddies will turn into real friends because gardeners are really nice people.

Most of our group had gone once or twice to a local gardening club but didn’t really fit in because we were interested in growing food and the garden clubs here were more interested in flowers.  Our group started accidentally by one of us posting a note on the virtual bulletin board of one of those proper flower groups that said, “Tomato Seed Swap, Saturday. Email for details.”  We just wanted to try some new varieties of tomatoes without going broke by each person ordering 10 different packs of seeds. We’d just order seeds together.  Well, ten people showed up for that first meeting.  Then, of course, we had to trade emails so we could find out how everyone else’s seeds were doing.  Then someone brought up the topic of manure and if that made tomatoes grow better.  Soon one person took a truck to a local farm and we all showed up at his house with an empty bucket for manure.  Come harvest season, another person invited us to her place to see her tomatoes.  The key to us becoming a cohesive group was that Niki saw how much fun we were having and declared “We needed a name.” and She announced we were the “Boulder Culinary Gardeners.”  Soon we were having email discussions about zucchini and herbs and organic pest control.  Although we had all been gardening on our own and felt we didn’t know much,  collectively, we knew a lot about gardening.  Post a question on the list and one of our small group had an idea of the answer.  Since then 10 people has become 150 and we all know so much more now.  We haven’t saved much money on seeds though.  Turns out gardeners can never have enough seeds.  So we still share tomato seeds, but we take the money we saved on those to buy heirloom squash and watermelons and plants we had never heard of before like broccoli raab.

You can make new garden friends pretty easily using this method.  Or help others build a community of friends who grow food.  A friend belongs to an HOA where people didn’t know each other well but all of them belonged to an email list for HOA business.  My friend offered HOA members a  free Seed Starting class and Seed Swap. (Seed avarice seems to be the real secret to bringing gardeners together.) Five people showed up and now are making friendships across the high fences of the HOA.

Make some new friends today.  Everybody wants to grow food these days but don’t know for sure how to do it.  Just about everybody wishes they had more friends with similar interests and don’t really know how to do that.  Seeds can bring people together.