growing your own organic food, raising livestock, & country living
Beginning to acclimate the chickens-- to the dog, to the outdoors, and to each other.
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We have two sets of chickens now-- 9 chickens that are 6 weeks old, and the other 8 are 4 weeks old. The size difference shows how fast chickens grow! They are now all happily in the brooder box together-- we had separated the two sets until the young hens were about 3 weeks old so that the older hens wouldn't bully them. The chicks were separated by a wooden barrier, and the young chicks had their own separate heat lamp. When we planned to bring them together, Eddie removed half the wood barrier and replaced it with some chicken wire before removing the barrier completely. The chicks were able to see each other and peek through the fence (which they did) for about 3 days before the barrier went up completely. We pulled the barrier overnight-- apparently it will keep them from bullying each other too much. The next day we planned to be at home in case we needed to run some interference.
We didn't really have to, though, thankfully! Some of the hens are more feisty than others-- in fact, the roosters seem pretty chill compared to one hen in particular, who still likes to peck at other hens. Ironically it is a silkie, and she is picking on hens twice her size!
So, in a nutshell, we've integrated the two sets of chicks and they are now happily in a brooder box (32 inches wide x 72 inches long-- we needed to be able to fit the brooder box out the door) with one heat lamp at 70 degrees in our basement. We have a leftover window screen covering the top. You'll need it sooner than you think-- just read my adventures from week 3! The box is surprisingly clean and doesn't smell-- but, we do change out the water every day twice a day and clean out the shavings every week. The shavings make great compost, so they go into our compost bin!
April in Maine means schizophrenic weather. One day it will be 55 degrees, the next we'll seen 3 inches of snow. On days where the temperature reaches almost 70, it is time to acclimate the chickens (the older ones) to life outside as we are close to introducing them to their coop. The hubby closed in the garden for the year with 5 foot tall fencing, so this was a great place to put the chickens for some acclimation. We also wanted to introduce the dog to the chickens as they run around the yard.
The dog did great-- he is truly a gentle giant. He is a pyrenees mix, so I think it is actually part of his breed that he is a livestock guardian. When we first brought the chicks home, we made sure he sniff each one of them. He was already super gentle. In fact, so gentle that he'd whine every time we'd let him sniff the brooder box and the hens, almost as if to say "those guys need to be outside so that I can protect them!"
So, outside time with the chickens was pretty straightforward. We brought out our 9 older chickens, let the dog go into the garden and sniff them, and all was good. He got pecked a few times but aside from that was happy to sniff around and make sure they were all taken care of. I don't think we did anything special in training him to be docile around the chickens aside from always letting him sniff them and get up close to them as they were growing, at least once a week. The hens and rooster we took out were funny-- our garden is still muddy and not green, so the hens didn't know quite what to do with their feet. It took them a few minutes to figure out that they should walk around and peck at the ground! There was one silkie that wasn't having any of it, and just kind of sat there. We'll keep an eye on her! Otherwise after a few minutes the hens were happily following the rooster around.
Double the size, double the trouble
Those little chicks that you saw on day 1? They are now double, if not triple, in size. We call them our teenage chickens, because they are sassy and playful. In fact, we've seen them play like dogs play-- they stare each other down, then flutter around.
We learned a lot about chickens so far. We have 9 that made it to "teenager" stage (3 weeks old). They are now in the larger section of our brooder with a heat lamp that registers at about 87 degrees. We also have 8 baby chicks (3 days old) that were resent from Cackle Hatchery since we lost so many in our first batch.
Here are some things we've learned:
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A city gal and her hubby figure out baby chicks
The chicks above are making distressed chirps because I had just put them into their new home-- they calmed down and chirped happily (not as loudly or shrilly) once they figured out their brooder box and had some time to acclimate.
Of course, the baby chicks arrived a day early, so I packed the kiddo into the car early morning Friday and drove over to the post office to pick up my chirping box. While not surprising since the day-old chicks flew from Missouri to Maine (Cackle Hatchery), five of the little guys were dead upon arrival. Poor things. Three more perished almost immediately after I dipped their beaks in water and placed them into the warm brooder. But, thankfully, the rest (11—four silkies and the rest salmon faverolles) are happily running around the brooder, eating, drinking, and chirping happily (as opposed to unhappily—Youtube it!). One of the silkies does seem to be a bit lethargic. He/she hasn’t really done much other than sleep, so we are keeping an eye on him. Eddie dipped his beak into some sugar water so that it might perk him up. No luck yet though.
I have to admit, the first time a group of them fell asleep I was sure that they were on their way to death too—they kind of look wobbly as they go to sleep. One of the silkies slept with its face resting against the brooder floor. We had prepped the brooder, made by the handy hubby (we’ll post this too), with two heat lamps instead of one and paper towels for easy clean up. We plan to change the bedding to pine shavings after three days. They have two water basins as well as a feeder-- hubby scattered feed too. They promptly pooped on everything (Eddie changed out the paper towels once he got home to keep it fresh and changed out their water as well). One of them had “pasty butt” which is basically dried poop that blocks more poop from coming out, which can be deadly. Eddie dunked this chick’s butt into warm water and wiped the butt with a paper towel—seemed to get rid of what it needed to get rid of.
We used two heat lamps because the brooder is in our drafty basement, and while the chicks are protected from the draft, when we tested the temperature the hottest spot was 95 degrees but the coldest was 60. We wanted the rest of the brooder to be a bit warmer—with two lamps, the chicks have cold spots of about 71 degrees, warmer spots of 85 degrees, and a hot spot of 95 degrees.
We bought salmon faverolles for several reasons after researching chickens. I wanted cold-hardy chickens that were docile and friendly. I also wanted roosters that wouldn’t make a HUGE racket, although who knows if that will actually happen. These birds are also good layers (about 5-6 eggs a week) and grow to be about 6-8 lbs, so can double up as a meat bird.
Silkies are adorable. My colleague affectionately calls them designer chickens. While growing to be a measly 4 lbs on average, silkies are surprisingly cold tolerant as long as they don’t get wet. They also look like a reincarnated fancy grandma in chicken form as adults. But really, I got them because they go broody often (which means they stop laying eggs and try to hatch eggs), make good mothers, and unlike most chickens, will eat bugs in your garden but not your garden itself (or at least not a lot of it). We plan on posting our coop building process once the ground starts thawing.
Although the sources I’ve read and the chicken master guide (see bottom of post, Amazon affiliate link) said that you shouldn’t bug the chickens too much for the first 24 hours, I did go down to the basement at least every hour to check on them! I can’t help but hover. There is one that is bouncing around already, running back and forth across the food bins—I’ll call her/him Taz I think (Tasmanian devil).
We purchased our chicks from Cackle Hatchery—they had good reviews and had the breed we wanted. We bought 5 unsexed silkies and 13 sf’s—3 roosters and 10 hens. Our goal was to keep about 10-12 alive—hopefully they all survive the night! We’ll keep you posted.
As for thoughts so far--
What a year-- we broke ground on our "official" homestead with an 80 foot by 24 foot garden space, successfully (and unsuccessfully) grew organic food, had a baby, and renovated our kitchen! In this longer blog post I'll make notes of what we were able to grow successfully, the perennials we invested in, what failed miserably, and adjustments for this year!
Growing organic food seems to be equally a science and an art. Gardening in general, while romanticized in my head when we first found out we'd be moving to Maine, is hard work, expensive to start, and time consuming. However, there is such a pleasure in eating a tomato fresh from your garden, and the taste makes store-bought veggies and fruit taste like plastic in comparison. There is also this feeling of connection-- I didn't WANT to concentrate on anything but eating this homegrown delicious food!
Okay, so let's start with the initial investments.
Tools (affiliate links to Amazon are listed):
A rototiller (essential for breaking sod)
Metal (not plastic) hand garden tools
Popsicle sticks (for marking and plotting)
A few fake owls
Deer netting (for berries)
Fencing (optional, but we wanted to protect our garden from the chickens we are getting Feb 2019 from the Chick Hatchery!)
Garden gloves (I have three pairs that I rotate)
We choose to buy an expensive electric motor rototiller because we knew we'd need to break sod to get the garden going. Aside from buying a tractor that was the quickest way possible. In Maine, the soil is rocky, so we spent time between rototilling and tossing large rocks out of the garden.
Once the sod was broken up, we had to pull out the chunks the rototiller left, It was tough work, especially for a preggo!
We chose this spot for southern exposure, which provides over 8 hours of light a day during the summers here, and because compared to the rest of our land it is relatively flat. If I had to choose again this spot would be it, but one nuisance that we didn't think about was how far the hose faucet was-- we have haul water pails up a hill. At least we'll be super fit. :) To run a hose line to the garden, we had to combine three hoses. It is a pain to wrap up neatly, so we preferred using the pails. Thankfully we got a lot of rain so we didn't have to soak the garden every few days.
Perennials (zone 5):
In addition to tool investment, we also invested in perennials and fruit trees. These had both an up front cost and a time cost. The apple trees won't bear fruit for 2 more years at least, and our one-year-old plum tree won't produce cold-hardy plums until years three to six.
2 blueberry bushes, one fruiting, one not (for continuous berry harvest)
1 raspberry bush
1 gooseberry bush (that may or may not have survived the winter but looked very sad all summer)
A row of asparagus (12 roots total)
Two apple trees (they need a buddy to pollinate and produce fruit-- we planted them 5 feet apart from our peach and plum tree right next to a patch of wildflowers for bee access)
A peach tree and a plum tree
Thyme (which we put in a weird place in the middle of the garden so ended up tilling it back in)
We purchased our fruit trees and started veggies from TruValue Agway. I was so surprised that our beautiful pink-blossomed peach tree gave us juicy peaches several months after we planted them in late May! Eddie dug a hole about 2 ft deep and 2 ft wide for each tree, and we mulched with pine needles (make sure they are dry at first), which are abundant (and free!) on our property.
Our other fruit trees, of course, didn't produce fruit yet, but the apple trees did bloom with small white blossoms-- super pretty! We hope they all survive the winter. We didn't cover them or do much to prep them for winter since baby arrived in September, so we'll see in May how they bloom! These varieties all require chill hours (a minimum of hours below 36 degrees) and they are certainly getting that in the thick of our Maine winter.
The blueberries and raspberries produced what I would call, very officially, a "large handful" of berries. Super sweet and delicious, we made sure to mulch the bushes with pine needles and cover them with deer netting-- less for deer and more for birds. I stuck two wooden poles on either side of our berry bush row and draped the netting over the two wooden poles. I'm not sure what they are called officially but these are the cheap wooden poles you use usually to measure out distances (or so I vaguely remember hubby explaining to me).
The asparagus grew to asparagus trees which look more like ferns, but we didn't pick any. The idea is that you let them grow into ferns, the ferns drop seeds, and you'll get asparagus ten-fold the following summer, Our purple asparagus (who knew asparagus could be purple?! Apparently it tastes the same) grew well but our second row of green asparagus stayed firmly put in the trench we (okay, Eddie, I was five months preggo at this point!) dug for it. Who knows why. One of our plans for 2019 is to replant asparagus roots as we love asparagus and it is expensive!
The perennial thyme got tilled under but I harvested it all around late August-- just took kitchen shears to the low-laying herb and gave it a haircut, essentially. Some I used fresh for soups and herb-crusted pork, but most of it I strung up in batches with cooking twine and hung from every cabinet in our kitchen to dry. I should have taken a picture-- it looked like I was channelling my inner hippie and warding off spirits. Since I have no picture of the hanging thyme, here is a picture of my handsome hubby hard at work with the trees.
We drew and redrew the garden plot at least ten times (see image later on), making sure that everything we planted was next to something it "liked" as a companion plant. While a lot of info was gleaned simply by typing "companion plant for x" into Google, my book-nerd self did buy a bunch of gardening books that helped a lot. I added them below. Yes, they are Amazon affiliate links, so we may make a small commission off your purchase if you click on the link below-- of course, no extra cost to you.
The Vegetable Gardening for Idiots book was great because it had a lot of visuals and helped explain the different seasons and growing times for different produce. The Homesteading book is great for more in depth ideas about things like soil testing (which we never did, because we already knew our soil was clay-like and rocky like most Maine soil), raising chickens, and using solar energy. It is a great "dreaming of homesteading" book AND has lots of practical ideas. It does have lists of companion plants. I just didn't want to take it outside with me and get it dirty since it is so pretty inside. :)
Backyard farming on an acre or less was appropriate for us since we currently live on 1.5 acres. We do have our eyes on a 50 acre plot! For most of us, even an acre and a half is a lot of land to work with! The book was great in providing some good ideas in regards to layout and crop rotation.
Finally, the Eliot Coleman book (apparently he's, like, THE Maine organic grower) was a bit more focused on commercial farming production but had some neat ideas that we will implement this year (I had bought the book as a Christmas present to myself!). I bought myself a dibbler too so I hope to end up with straighter rows. In 2018 we just used our hands and fingers!
The image below was our final draft of our 2018 plot. Notice that we ended up never using a space-- it was about 5x5 feet. We could had grown a lot more produce there! I was bummed about it but at 7 months pregnant, felt that I'd better not hazard getting down to plant seeds in the heat in case I couldn't get back up again!
We ended up reseeding several veggie seeds because they didn't sprout by the package time. We did have a short cold snap right after our last frost, which I think killed our first round of pumpkin seeds.
All in all I think we were successful with our first garden plot this size. Here is what we successfully grew. Now, by successfully, I mean it fed us for at least two meals! I know, that's not really a lot, but many of these gave us much, much more than two meals. See what was too successful below!
Pumpkin (we still have 4 and it is February)
2 heads of cabbage
What was unsuccessful:
What was too successful:
Zucchini, corn, and summer squash. Our summer quickly became known as zucchini-mageddon. Every morning for a solid month, Eddie would bring in at least 5 GIANT zucchini. No, we didn't forget about them. We just got a ton of rain in 2018 and our zucchini blew up to the size of a calf muscle. I learned quickly that there was such a thing as over planting. We had planted two hills of zucchini with three zucchini seeds on each hill-- we did the same for squash. We still have 5 one-gallon ziplock bags in our chest freezer full of zucchini! I had to get creative with zucchini recipes too-- from zucchini lasagna to zucchini fritters. Zucchini bread with walnuts actually turned out delicious.
As for the corn, I thought we'd eat some delicious corn on the cob and reminisce about our hard work paying off while drinking beer and watching the sunset. Welp. Preggo wanted nothing but sleep, and couldn't drink alcohol. We didn't harvest the corn quick enough, so when we did, it was actually over ripe, with a weird sandy texture. The chipmunks feasted though on the corn we left in our harvest basket outside our porch.
Unsuccessful meant lots of things.
As for strawberries and beets-- THERE WERE ANTS IN OUR PLANTS. This became a running joke as I declared organic war against the black ants eating my berries. Apparently they are "good for the garden," but in our case, they ATE our garden. Determined to thwart their steady attack, I baby-powdered the crap out of the strawberry and beet plants, but, alas, it was too late. We did manage to salvage 5 or 6 strawberries.
There were also things that never grew or got destroyed by bugs, We were able to salvage 2 cabbage heads but the rest were eaten by those green worms that turn into white butterflies. They ate four cabbage heads. The same worms also ate through 6 of our 8 collard greens, and the two that we did manage to save had holes all through them. Yummy.
Cabbage beetles really went to town on our potatoes, but we still managed to harvest a bunch. Our jalapeños, parsley, and basil never sprouted. The peas got scorched, as did the broccoli. Our wimpy carrots did grow but were deformed and teeny tiny-- about enough carrot for one bite. Our spinach bolted, towering into pretty yet inedible towers. The garlic and shallot never did anything-- technically we should have waited until this spring but I also planted them wayyy too early in July. They really are a fall crop that overwinters.
The harvest that was JUST right:
Our beautiful chamomile took a little while to grow but come late July we started harvesting flower heads and didn't stop until the first frost. We have a mason jar full of dried heads for tea. Perfect sleep-inducing and anxiety-reducing tea for me!
Our pumpkins are still sitting in our basement. We harvested 17 in total. Several were made into pumpkin pie, others into mash with honey and feta. Still others supplemented the dog's dinner.
While our onions were tiny, they were strong and lasted several months after frost. The arugula was delicious and plentiful, as was the lettuce. We harvested tons of cucumber and green beans along with tomato that we happily ate. We even had some left over to give away to neighbors.
Our one kale plant and 8 swiss chard plants produced crisp, beautiful leaves even a little after the first frost. We loved to fry the kale in taco fat as part of our breakfast. Swiss chard was great with simple olive oil and garlic!