Friday, March 23, 2018

Shopping for baby chicks, baby goats and other springtime shenanigans

Nothing screams "SPRING" more than baby chicks, baby goats and crocuses.  And this blog post is filled with 'em, because guess what?  Spring has sprung, more or less.  More last week, less this week, with the snow line falling again.

I accidentally came home with six new baby chicks after entering our local farm store.  They were 50 percent off, so how could I have resisted?  The chicks live in our bathroom for now, with a heat lamp and a brooder that keeps them safe.

Our dogs, especially Raka, the big one, love these little fluff balls.  Raka lies on the floor with them, letting them flutter all over her and even lets them peck her nose.  It's incredibly cute, albeit a tiny little bit exciting, because Raka could fit all six chicks easily into her mouth at once.

If you want to raise chicks and know how to build a chicken tractor to keep them safe, you can take my online chicken raising course for 10 percent off with coupon code "chicks", but only until Sunday at 10pm Pacific. Click here to check it out.

Also: baby goats.  Ahhhhhhhh, baby goats.  Last fall, I sold all of my goats to have a breather and figure out what I want to do with my life, but very soon I realized that this life needs to have goats in it.  And cheesemaking

So I've been spending time with friends' goats to see which ones I want.  The problem is: I want them all.

Below are mini Nubians with their adorable long ears, which I'm drooling over because I've bred and raised ear-less La Mancha goats for over a decade.

And then there's the white Saanens with their bunny rabbit ears.  

Choices, choices.  What's a girl to do when one baby goat looks cuter than the other?

This whole spring thing happened pretty quickly.  One week, we were covered in snow and ice, and the other, things were melted.

The worst part was when I had to shovel snow and ice to clear a path for the chicken tractor.  The poor girls had been stuck in one area for weeks, blocked in by snow, until I finally had enough and freed them.

Good exercise, y'all.  And happy chickens pecking at grass.  It was worth it.

As soon as the snow was gone, I jogged out to the garden (in a T-shirt and barefoot) so I could plan it out for this year's planting.  I practice crop rotation to keep things healthy, and I keep a stained, tattered garden journal that's 15 years old.  It documents every single year of gardening we've done on this piece of land.  It's epic.  And dirty.

So there I was, squatting in the garden, and although I had only planned on laying out garden beds, my arms and legs started twitching, and before I knew it, I had filled the wheelbarrow with compost from the goat barn, spread it on a garden bed, broadforked it to make it nice and loose, and planted all the garlic.

I love when that  happens.  Garlic's in.  Check.

I shall leave you with images of last week.

... Sun shining onto the Cascade River...

... Sun rising in our back yard...

... My sons heading into the woods with their friend to target practice with their bows and arrows...

... My husband sniffing Devil's club inner bark he harvested to make a tincture with...

... Is your garden snow free yet? 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Why and how to grow potatoes in your garden or containers - organically!

Why grow your own potatoes?

Besides being very easy to grow in a backyard garden or even containers, why should you grow potatoes? 

How about the mind-boggling varieties you can plant? You can pick from a huge variety of taters when you grow your own, with different skin color, flesh color, texture, flavor and use. 

Who needs boring old Russet Potatoes or Yukon Golds when you can grow these tantalizing varieties: Rose Finn Apple, Desiree, French Fingerling, German Butterball, Russian Banana, Austrian Crescent, Red Bliss All Blue, Purple Majesty... Is your mouth watering and imagination running wild at these names?

Some varieties are better for fresh eating (Red Gold, Rose Gold), some are better for long-time storage (Russet, Carola), and whatever your growing and eating goals, I encourage you to plant some of these tasty tubers!
You can even grow spuds if you don't have a garden – just grow them in containers on a patio or driveway!

When to plant?

Potatoes can be planted as soon as you can work the soil in early spring, although they won't begin to grow until the soil temperature has reached 45 degrees F. 

We plant ours two to four weeks before the last frost date. They can deal with a light frost, since the soil will insulate them. However, if the young leaves have popped through the soil and a hard frost threatens, they can get damaged. 

 If a cold snap is forecast, you can push soil or mulch like straw over them, and the leaves will grow back up through it in a few days as if nothing happened.

How to plant them?

Start with certified seed potatoes to make sure they are disease free, since these vegetables can suffer from serious fungal and bacterial diseases. You can save some every year and re-plant. But if after a while yields decline, or their foliage looks weird, just start over again with new certified seed potatoes. 

Don't use old potatoes from your root cellar, since these could carry disease organisms without you knowing it.

Plant seed potatoes whole if they are small (about the size of a golf ball), or cut the bigger seed potatoes in chunks (2 inches square), and make sure that each piece has two or three buds, or eyes, on it. 

Allow the potato chunks to dry for a couple of days before planting so a callous can develop over the cut, which helps prevent rotting.

Some people expose their seed potatoes to light and temperatures between 60 to 70 degrees to encourage sprouting a couple of weeks before they plant them. That way, they take less time to mature and are less likely to rot. Make sure to plant them when the sprouts are still less than one inch long.

Potatoes are very easy to grow. They are pretty forgiving when it comes to soil conditions, but ideally they like slightly acidic soil (PH of 5 to 7) and light, loose, well-drained soil.

We practice crop rotation so they're not grown in the same garden bed every year. It's best to wait four years or more until you plant them in the same spot.
There are several ways to plant spuds.

The easiest way to plant them is 3 inches deep and 12 inches apart, then keep hilling, or just mulch with compost or straw. Mulching helps keep soil cooler and moister, which benefits potatoes and cuts down on watering and some pests.

Here's how we plant: We dig a trench that is 8 inches deep and sprinkle organic pelletized fertilizer on it.  Place each piece of potato with its cut side down and eyes pointing up every 12 inches. Space the rows 3 feet apart. Place 4 inches of soil on top of the potatoes. The plants will begin to grow, and as they do, continue to fill the trench. Eventually, we “hill” the potatoes, meaning we mound the soil around the stems of the potato plants as they grow. This prevents light from reaching the tubers. You don't want the potatoes exposed to light, since this can make them turn green and produce solanine, a mildly poisonous substance.

Some people don't even dig trenches, but just loosen soil, throw the potatoes on top, then keep covering and mulching them with straw. This way, they don't have to dig them up later. However, you get less yield that way, and mice or voles might have a field day in there, munching your crops!

Keep the plants well watered throughout summer, especially while they are flowering, since this is when the plants are creating their tubers. You want them to be happy so they produce lots! 1 to 2 inches of water per week is ideal.

In late summer, foliage begins to turn yellow and dies back. Stop watering then, since this will help your taters cure in time for harvesting.

How to grow potatoes in containers:

You can plant potatoes in large pots and just keep piling soil onto them as the foliage grows. Or use commercial growing bags (constructed of heavy, dense polypropylene), which is a great alternative on patios or places where there's no good garden soil. 

 Put a few inches of soil and compost in the bottom of the bag, plant three or four seed potatoes, then cover with three inches of soil. Keep adding soil as the plants grow until the bag is full. 

When harvest time comes, just dump the bag on its side and grab the potatoes. Make sure you water adequately and deeply enough throughout the growing season!

Some people even just use a large plastic garbage bag for this, punched through with a few holes for drainage.

You could also use hardware cloth with 1/4-inch mesh, or chicken wire, to build these potato towers. Make them into a cylinder about 18 inches in diameter and 24 inches tall. Follow the planting and growing procedure above, and then just lift the cylinder when harvest time arrives.

When and how to harvest

Let's talk about harvesting – our favorite stage of the whole growing process!

Digging up potatoes is like a treasure hunt, and I usually invite my kids and their friends to help with this fun activity. Use a garden fork or shovel to dig, but be careful when you dig spuds: its easy to spear them. 

Make sure you get every single one, otherwise they'll overwinter and pop us as “volunteers” the next spring, which will mess up your crop rotation.

You can stick your hand in the soil and sneak baby potatoes 2 or 3 weeks after the plants have finished flowering.

If you want to keep them for storage, wait until they are fully cured, typically 2 to 3 weeks after the foliage has died back.

One trick to tell if your potatoes are ready for harvest is to dig one up, rub your thumb hard on the potato, and if the skin rubs off easily, they are too young to store. Potatoes with a thicker, tougher skin that won't rub off will last the longest in storage.

If the weather is dry, we leave the potatoes on the ground for a few hours to dry off. Some people leave them in the field for up to three days to cure them. I don't like leaving them exposed to light for so long, so I just make sure they are dry before I store them. 

 If you harvest in wet weather, allow the potatoes to cure in a dry, protected area, like a garage or covered porch. Curing for a few days allows the skins to mature, which helps with long storage.

How to store:

We store our potatoes in cardboard boxes in our dark crawl space, which is like a root cellar. They need to be stored in a well-ventilated, dark and cool place that's between 35 and 40 degrees F. Stored in this manner, we often eat our own potatoes until it's time to plant the next crop in spring.

How much to plant:

A single potato plant yields 2 to 5 pounds of potatoes, so you should plant 10 to 15 plants per person. 5 to 8 pounds of seed potatoes will plant a 100 feet row. You can grow 60 pounds (1 bushel) from a 30-foot row.

Now it's your turn: Tell me if you grow your own potatoes, what your favorites are, and when you plant them!

Friday, March 2, 2018

Homesteading in paradise February 2018 highlights

Oh February! You have messed with us! You have teased us with fresh spring nettles and then dumped a ton of snow on us!

Oh well. It sure made for beautiful icicles and stunning cross country skiing.

You can partake in the beauty in my latest short video. Also: why are the chickens confused?

Click here to watch it!

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