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Archive for April, 2010

Hey folks, today I’m going to diverge from poultry and plant talk and spread the word about a cool community space in the area. R.A.T. Gallery is a non-profit radical art team focusing on emerging artists “who are not governed by conventionality or status.” Our first visit to the R.A.T. was for Friday’s open mic, which is held weekly. In all honesty, I usually have low expectations for open mics, but the quality of the music, the space, and the energy was fantastic. (A video of Lee and I performing Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine” that night has since surfaced.)

This weekend there will be the usual Friday open mic, but on Saturday there’s a new exhibition opening. Organized by Laura Esposito, the show has been given various titles – Give a Rat’s Ass for Art, Diversity of Community, while I’m a personal fan of Consciousness: Visual & Vibrational. Whatever you call it, come out on Saturday night and see some art and performances.

Here’s a sneak peak of a piece I’m working on for the show, The Official Territorial Claims of Antarctica. Hope you can make it out to see this and more!

OPENING RECEPTION: Saturday, May 1, 7 – 9 PM

Open Mic every Friday 8 PM – 1 AM

R.A.T. Gallery
5207 Point Pleasant Pike
Gardenville, PA 18902 map

R.A.T. Gallery on Facebook
R.A.T. Music on Facebook

This event is sponsored in part by Brad’s Raw Chips, Murphy & Klein Floral Studio, and generous volunteer & monetary support from lots of rad people.

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It seems lately, that each time I go for a trip, I come back feeling an increasing urgency to keep up with the demands of spring. It’s not a stressful kind of urgency, but the voice of a season that says in each breath, “Look alive.”

This time the excursion was to Brooklyn, to visit foodie Daniel Delaney, artists Brandon CoxJennifer Grimyser, and the sustainable butcher shop The Meat Hook. I came back to find the ducklings about twice as big as when I left them, excitedly trampling the chicks as they raced between the food and water dishes to maintain a constant grain slurry in their bills and all over the bedding and the other birds. The chicks, with their more reasonable growth rate but innate sense of pecking order, preferred not to eat out of the provided containers, but to chase the ducks around trying to peck the food off of their sloppy bills. Sixteen birds in one box meant the shredded paper bedding needed to be changed twice a day and they couldn’t make it through the night without drinking the water dry. This had to stop.

The next day we went to the feed store and bought a mason jar feeder and waterer and some straw bales. We got another box set up and moved the chicks to a home with higher walls so they could practice flying safely. We figured the ducks should get the new, deeper waterer so that they could submerge their bills. An hour later we realized that this allowed them to spill most of the water they were drinking, putting almost a whole quart onto the floor of their cardboard box. Oops. But the straw is working out quite well. It doesn’t get as compacted or soiled as the shredded paper, and is better for the compost pile. And it’s probably safer for the ducks to eat, although they will munch on both (have you figured out that ducklings are a handful?).

For the past few days it’s been rainy, which keeps us from focusing on most farm tasks. Today’s precipitation let up enough for us to address some wanting farm tasks. Since their move, we had been ignoring the state of the duckling’s cardboard box, but this morning it was definitely leaking and reeking, no doubt about it. The results of our emergency meeting concluded that a purchase of a huge plastic storage container was in order. The swell and smell are solved, and now, instead of having to scoop out their nasty bedding, we can just dump the contents into the compost.

Next on the agenda was dealing with our laying hens’ lice problem. We got our hens as adults with clipped beaks. They do this at some commercial hatcheries to prevent chickens from pecking each other when they’re kept in those inhumane and stressful factory farm conditions. However, clipped beaks also prevent them from effectively cleaning themselves, and as a result, our chickens are being plagued by poultry lice. These parasites are host specific and can not be transferred to humans. But they seem to be irritating and can potentially spread to our young chicks and ducks, so we’ve made it a priority to get rid of them. Our research shows that it may be impossible to do without Monsanto-made poisons. So far we’ve tried dusting with diatomaceous earth and today, spraying with orange oil. We applied it to one hen today, and noticed that hundreds of lice began crawling away from the skin only to be met by the inaccurate, blunt pecks of her sisters. It’s nice that they try to clean each other, but they’re not very good at it. After spraying that one chicken, she seemed so damp and grumpy that we decided not to soak the rest until a sunnier day when they could dry themselves properly.

By lunchtime I was feeling like I’d had enough of dealing with dirty birds, but then we had our latest version of the egg sandwich – Happy Farm duck eggs on whole wheat sourdough with steamed garden greens and feta cheese. Biting into a bright orange, perfectly runny yolk is a certain kind of  bliss, the taste of which forbidding you to enjoy another lifeless, factory farm egg ever again. This winter in Austin, I got so hooked on these “yard egg sambos” that I found I didn’t feel quite right if I didn’t have one in the morning. Four months later and I’ve hardly skipped a day. I’m not sure if you’d call it an addiction or a passion, but in either case this is precisely when I realize it’s all worth it.

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A cold frame is kind of like a mini greenhouse, protecting tender plants from frost so you can harvest salad through the winter or get a head start on summer crops. Plants grown in a cold frame will be stronger than those started indoors; a day with the glass removed is enough to harden them off before transplanting. We’ve discovered that cold frames can also give protection from hungry deer and chickens!

Lee started building these easy cold frames when we were living in Austin, and he’s been banging them out ever since. It basically consists of finding a window, building a box to fit it, and sloping the whole thing toward the south.

Things you’ll need:

– An old window, a scrap pane of glass, or a piece of corrugated roof plastic. Anything that is at least 2′ x 3′ or so and will let light through

– 4 pieces of lumber, about 2×10″, 2 pieces cut to same length as the glass, 2 pieces cut to the width minus 4″

– 4 pieces of 1×1″ lumber, cut to the same width as the larger lumber or a little smaller

– Some nails or screws

1. Arrange your 2x10s to form a box, the shorter pieces set inside the longer. It’s okay if its smaller than the glass, which will just rest on top and can have an overhang. If the height of all the pieces is a little off, just make sure their tops edges line up on one side. Then the glass can rest flat and the plants will have more protection from the cold. Put a few screws in the corners to brace it.

2. Place the 1x1s vertically in the corners to further reinforce the box and keep it square. Make sure they don’t stick out past the top and put some more screws in there.

3. Decide where you’re cold frame will live. It can fit over a garden bed which you plant directly into, like one above, or sit on an unused part of the yard and protect potted things, as below. Either way, the location should receive a good amount of sunlight each day, and be sloped toward the south (or the north if you’re below the equator). This doesn’t mean the ground already needs to be graded that way, although that would be cool. We just dig a little dirt from the south side and mound it in the back to give us a slope.

4. Put your plants inside the box, and the piece of glass on top.

Viola! Didn’t we say it was easy? The hardest part is remembering that those little plants in there still need air. Try to open the cold frame up at least a little every day. We crack the glass by propping it up with a rock, or more so with a stick prop. Most days, though, we just take the whole thing off during the warm hours.

This can get a lot fancier. Try adding hinges to the glass, angled sides, mitered corners… or just get bigger. Show us some of your cold frames!

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… or as Lee likes to call them, “chicklings.”

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Here’s our new chicken tractor, housing 5 happy hens, built with scrap wood and chicken wire. It’s 4′ x 8′ with a 1′ skirt all around to keep digging predators out. It has 2 nesting boxes above (they ended up only laying in one of them), with perching bars and food and water access below.

Even though we move it every day or so, there are many advantages of a chicken tractor over a stationary coop. We don’t have to let them out early in the morning or close them up at night (we get to take vacations!), or clean out a coop, and they mow the lawn. Plus we’ve been letting them scratch at our future garden beds, eating the grass, aerating the soil, and fertilizing with their poops. It’s the portrait of mutual benefit!

Some things we’ll change for chicken tractor 2.0: designing it as a 45-45-90 degree triangle (less complicated cuts), using lighter material for construction (all that wood makes it a 2-person moving job), and giving the chickens more protection from rain.

For further inspiration, check out this city chicken page with over 170 pictures of different people’s takes on the chicken tractor idea.

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Seed starting is one of my favorite farm tasks. Watching a tiny seed germinate, leaf out, and flourish in the garden is quite magical. We sometimes buy starts if we just want one or two of a common plant, but for a staggering selection of varieties, and to have enough to share with friends, sowing your own seeds is key. Here’s how we do it.

Step 1: Right Plant, Right Time

Different plants need different growing conditions, and therefore should be sown at different times. Some seeds, like corn, are best direct sown in the ground outside. But many things can be started inside, while it’s still snowing, to get a head start on the harvest. Seed packets will tell you what’s best for each variety, based on your last frost date. If you’re planting more than a few things, or you want to sow every few weeks for a successive harvest, try to create a seeding schedule to keep everything on track.

Step 2: Gather Your Supplies

Here at Lunaria, we like to keep it sustainable… and cheap. That means we try to find resuse old items instead of buying new things. Of course, you can buy all of these things at any garden store.

Containers: There are many different options for containers, from plastic pots to egg cartons to beer cups from last night’s kegger, even soil blocks that use no container at all. What ever you use, just make sure it has some drainage holes in the bottom. If water can’t drain, your beautiful plant roots will drown and the seedling will quickly perish.

Soil Mix: Some gardeners swear by a sterile, soilless mix of peat moss and vermiculite, while others wouldn’t use anything but rich compost. After experimenting with different mixes this year, I’m personally a partial to a balanced native soil. If you don’t feel like guessing, you can buy a bag of potting mix and relax.

Watering Trays: You’ll want to do much of your watering from below to prevent the dreaded “damping off” (more about that soon). We use old baking sheets and plastic bins, but anything that can hold your pots and water will do the trick. Soil will wick water up through capillary action, but you can also use a capillary mat with one side under your pots and the other end in a container of water. They sell fancy ones at stores but you can use any scrap of natural fabric, like a towel, jeans, wool felt, or blanket.

Light Source: We’re making do with a south-facing window because they’re located in the kitchen where we often have the light on at night and on cloudy days. But ideally your seedlings should have more light than that. Without enough light, plants become leggy – thin, spindly, struggling things. Give your plants a good start and offer plenty of light for at least 12 hours per day. They don’t need special grow lights, any florescent or incandescent bulb covering a wide area will do. Make sure you don’t burn your plants with a light placed too close; you can raise it as the plants grow.

Seeds: There are endless sources for seed out there, and seed patent technology is a lucrative business, indeed. Many commercial seed companies sell F1 hybrids, which take advantage of “hybrid vigor” to be unfailingly productive and uniform, but will not breed true if you try to save seeds. Saving seeds from patented varieties may also be illegal! If you want to collect seeds from plants that will carry on genes specific to your growing conditions, make sure you select open pollinated varieties. All heirloom varieties are open pollinated, as they were selected and bred for flavor and regional uniqueness instead of uniformity and shipability. Seed Savers Exchange was founded to save endangered varieties from extinction. Selecting organic seed will ensure that your seeds are not genetically modified. Try to choose a local company, because your seeds are more likely to be adapted to your growing region. The only thing better than buying local is trading with fellow gardeners! Mail your friends packets and give handfuls to neighbors. When you save your own, there’s always some to share.

Plant tags: My all-time favorite tagging method is a popsicle stick with the variety name and sowing date written in Sharpie. Whatever you use, make sure it can stand up to being wet.

Step 3: Sowing

Put the soil mix is in the pots within a half inch of the top, tamp down slightly, and water (overhead watering is fine). Figure out how deep the seed needs to be planted. It will say on the packet, but, as a rule, 2 – 3 times the width of the seed is good. Put a dimple in the soil to that depth, and drop your seeds in. Some gardeners sow a few seeds in each hole and thin to the strongest seedling. I personally think that wastes a lot of seed so I plant one seed to each pot, but plant more many pots than I need, and just remove the ones that haven’t germinated after a while. Inevitably, some seedlings won’t make it, and its nice to have extras for gifts, so make sure to oversow. Once your seed is in there, cover it up with a little bit of soil, and tamp it down a little. Soil contact is important for good germination, but you don’t want to compress the soil. Tag your seed so you know what’s what, and relax for a little while. Most seeds don’t need light to germinate, and although warm conditions can speed germination, we keep our seeds at room temperature.

Step 4: Tend your sprouts

Hopefully you’ve been keeping your seeds well-watered, and if conditions are right, within a week or so you should see little sprouts with a set of cotyledons, their baby leaves. Congratulations! But once you see them germinate, lay off the H2O a little and make sure they receive good ventilation. Maintaining drier conditions is the best defense against damping off, a general fungal rot that is the biggest killer of seedlings. Keeping the soil line way at the top of your container is one way to promote good airflow, in addition to turning a fan on or opening the windows. That little bit of wind will strengthen your little sprouts’ stems, and prepare them for the outside world. Water from the bottom now that they’ve come up, until the soil is moist, not wet. Let them dry out a bit between waterings, and sit back and watch your babies grow.

Seedlings have all the food they need for a little while, so there’s no need to give them extra nutrients. Fertilizing this young can harm your plants. But once you see true leaves, your seedlings are in active phosynthesizing mode. Now it’s okay to give them compost or other fertilizer high in nitrogen or potassium to promote healthy leaf and root growth. It’s also safe to move them, either into a bigger pot, the cold frame, or outside in the garden.

We’ll have another post on transplanting soon. Until then, you can check out Hudson Valley Seed Library’s blog. They have a great 6-part series called Seed Starting 101.

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