Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Snow Birds

It's late February, and here in the Northern latitudes, it's pretty easy to get a little bit of cabin fever. We're at least a month away from being able to do any real work in the dirt, and looking through seed catalogs only gets you so far. Well, it's no different for our chickens, who have been literally "cooped up" since the winter arrived. You can see in this view out toward our backyard that it's hardly chicken-friendly weather.

Of course, the coop, where the chickens spend the night, is well insulated and protected from the elements. We keep it stocked with fresh pine shaving bedding, and try not to open the doors any more than necessary, to keep the wind and moisture out. In theory that should be enough to sustain our hens, but it gets pretty darn cold in Iowa (sometimes below zero overnight). So we opted to add a little more heat in the form of an infrared heat lamp. The light provides heat, while the red keeps it from being too bright and keeping the chickens awake at night.

That takes care of the coop, but the chickens really only spend the night inside there. Most of the day they wander about the run, eating, drinking, pecking and scratching. And our run is constructed of wire mesh, which would let all the snow and wind through. That's a big danger for chickens, since it can cause frostbite. As a result, we've had to create a windblock about the entire run. This we cobbled together from whatever we had on hand, including cardboard, plywood, and used feed bags (which work great). We also covered the top of the run with clear plastic sheeting to keep out the snow yet let in some sunlight.

This setup keeps the chickens safe and protected from the elements, but the downside is that it also makes things pretty boring for them. During the summer they're accustomed to seeing the yard outside the run, munching on bugs that wander in, and also snacking on weeds and scraps that we throw in to them. Most of those are gone during the winter, so we try to provide some interesting enrichment inside the run. This way, even if they have to be inside, at least things aren't too monotonous. This picture shows them crowding around a hanging cabbage - good for extra nutrients, and some excitement as it swings around in response to their pecks. It's just like chicken tetherball!

You'll also notice that the last two pictures have a wall or two of the chicken run uncovered. We do this periodically on nice days during the winter to let a little fresh air in and to let the chickens enjoy some scenery. Days like this are somewhat rare during an Iowa winter, but when it's relatively warm and calm, it's nice to take advantage of it. In the future we're hoping to build a larger fenced area that can be utilized on nice days for some supervised "free-ranging." After all, our chickens can get by while being cooped up, but we do what we can to relieve their cabin fever too!

Friday, February 15, 2013

How Low Can You Go?

February is such a tempting time of the year.  It's still cold, but spring feels like it’s just around the corner, and we are anxious to get things rolling.  One of the big things that we want to do to increase how much food we grow in our backyard is to lengthen the growing season.  If you simply rely on Mother Nature, the frost-free date in central Iowa isn’t until May 10th.  We aren’t willing to wait that long, so we’re taking matters into our own hands.

Last year we built a cold frame and we plan to use it again this year.  This season we’ve decided to also try a low tunnel.  A low tunnel is essentially the same thing as a cold frame, just a different shape, and the end goal is the same.  It’s a small structure that uses the greenhouse effect to warm the soil and protect plants from the cooler outdoor temperatures.

Lots of places sell low tunnel kits, but we thought it looked simple enough to just build one ourselves.  We even found this great example.  We picked up a few supplies, and built this handy low tunnel in just a couple of hours.

To anchor the low tunnel, we used 6-inch long pieces of ¾-inch diameter PVC fastened to our raised beds.  We drilled a couple of holes through one sidewall of each piece so that we could fit the head of a screw through it.  Then we simply screwed these anchors to both sides of our raised beds spaced about 2 feet apart.

The basic structure of the low tunnel is arched pieces of ½-inch diameter CPVC (chlorinated polyvinyl chloride) pipe.  We looked at regular ½-inch PVC first, but the CPVC was more ductile and only a little more expensive.  It would be easier to bend the CPVC into a hoop shape without cracking it, so we decided it was worth a little extra cost.  The CPVC was sold in ten-foot long sections, but that made the low tunnel a little too tall.  After cutting each piece down to nine feet, the height looked much better.

The ends of the CPVC hoops slide right into the PVC anchors.  Next we added a “spine” of ¾-inch PVC across the tops of the hoops to help make the low tunnel a little more rigid.  The spine is fastened to the hoops with just a couple of plastic cable ties.

The last step was to drape a sheet of 6 mil plastic sheeting over the PVC “skeleton.”  The sheet of plastic should be large enough to reach all the way to the ground on all four sides of the low tunnel.  We’re holding the sheet of plastic to the ground with some landscaping blocks and railroad ties that we had lying around the yard.  This traps the heat inside the low tunnel and stops the wind from blowing our plastic sheeting away.

One really nice thing about this design is that we can always add anchors to our other raised beds so that we can move the low tunnel to any garden box we choose.  This low tunnel should be an easy way to start our veggies earlier in the spring, and keep growing things later in the fall.  It’s a simple and inexpensive way to stretch the Iowa growing season and produce even more fresh food!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Hibernation over!

You may have noticed that we haven't exactly been around here a lot lately. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our disappearance began around the holidays, during a time when we do a lot of traveling to make sure we visit both sides of the family. But then, we kind of never came back. We can blame that on winter being a slow time of year for gardening, or whatever sounds the most plausible. The truth is, we got a little lazy. And the worst part is, it wasn't just with the blog, we slacked off on our garden work too.

Remember these guys? Our little winter project to try to grow lettuce? Well, it's a little hard to determine how well that experiment turned out, since we basically stopped watering them. It turns out lettuce, especially baby lettuce, likes water. Who knew? In a remarkable feat of plant kingdom fortitude, a few of our plants survived, as you can see in the picture, though none of them did much growing. Hopefully that will change soon, because of an exciting new addition to the farm.

That's the new and improved seed-starting and indoor growing shelf. It's four feet wide, which accommodates a full-length shop light and two plant trays. And it's about six feet tall, which means at least three, maybe four shelves of plants growing on it, depending on how we space them. We have the one light fixture that we used last year for seed starting, and purchased (but haven't yet set up) a second. So far we are growing some columbines from seed, the remains of the lettuce experiment, and a reboot of indoor greens with spinach this time. So far the spinach seems to be doing okay, though you can tell it's still very young.

This go-round, we're being much more diligent in our watering, and we've incorporated some plant food (fertilizer) since the storebought growing medium doesn't have much in the way of nutrients. We'll see if we can actually grow something worth harvesting indoors when it's only about 35 degrees outside.

Which is all well and good, but the grow-shelf is going to get a lot more crowded in a few weeks as we begin to add our seed starts for the outside garden. Last year we planted broccoli seeds indoors in late February, and got a simply amazing crop after we transplanted them outside. Broccoli is one of our favorites, so we hope to do at least that well this year. And then we'll have to start peppers, and tomatoes, so it should become a very busy shelf unit.

It's hard to believe that the gardening season is starting and it's only February, but it's what we've been waiting for all winter. And now that things are getting going again, hopefully it will kick us out of our stupor and back into growing again!