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2014 Maple Syrup Season Part 2

I was sad when I realized that the best thing for our family was the discontinuance of our CSA. All the same, it was a peace-filled realization.

However…

I recently had an experience that was easily the saddest, most disheartening experience of my homesteading life to date. Imagine my dismay when – three days before I was to process it – I discovered that 50 gallons of pure maple sap stored in my garage was… spoiled. Sour. Unusable for syrup.

Saddest. Moment. Ever.

All of my sweet (literally) self-sufficient dreams drowned in a 5-gallon food-grade bucket of sour-smelling, cloudy liquid. Last year we had syrup from our sap but processed by Papa. This year I was really looking forward to the self-affirming experience of collecting and processing my own syrup.

Fortunately, Papa always has an abundance of syrup (he still has a ton left over from two years ago) so hopefully he’ll pity us enough to donate this year’s syrup.

Meanwhile, the thought of letting 50 gallons of maple sap go to waste made me want to vomit. I came inside… sat with my head in my hands and thought…

Maybe I could turn it into vinegar?

After an evening of frantic internet research, that’s just what I did. (Or, at least, what I made a plan to do.) Although the web is light on details about making maple vinegar, I did find enough direction to develop a plan for several different approaches. In a nutshell, they include…

Method 1: Diluted maple syrup mixed with wine-making yeast

Method 2: Maple sap with a Mother of Vinegar added

Method 3: Au natural (nothing added)

Because Method 1 involves diluted maple syrup, I decided to go ahead and process some of our sour sap all the way down to syrup. That way I could still experience (and show you) the process. What I didn’t expect is that as we got started, the batch really didn’t look (or smell) that bad. Coincidentally, Papa and I decided to process all but the 3 cloudiest buckets (15 gallons) down to maple syrup. The result is a very dark syrup that initially tastes just fine but leaves a strange after-taste. I’ve not yet dared to try it on pancakes.

wpid CYMERA 20140428 114631 2014 Maple Syrup Season Part 2

wpid CYMERA 20140428 114614 2014 Maple Syrup Season Part 2

I promise I’ll share all the details of my maple vinegar-making plan with you in a future post. Meanwhile, this post is dedicated to explaining and showing the process of taking sap to syrup.

Processing Maple Syrup 2014

As a refresher, maple sap becomes syrup when you remove the high water content, leaving behind the concentrated sugary content. The most popular way to do this is by boiling the sap to evaporate the water. The sugar content of sap varies based on many factors, but in general it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. For the homesteading maple syrup maker, a backyard evaporator is used to boil off all of that water. The evaporator can be as simple as a gas grill or it can take on a much more complicated form. For all the finer details on how an evaporator should function and how you can make one (along with how-to videos for several options) check out this post.

I was fortunate to be able to use Papa’s evaporator, featured in a post from 2013 that you can find here.

Click here for the step-by-step process, along with pictures and links to resources.

 
 

How to Freeze Eggs

wpid CAM03178 1024x759 How to Freeze Eggs

The winter of 2013/2014 was our first snowy season as chicken owners. I say was with a small amount of sarcasm since the snow just doesn’t seem to want to let go. (The three-foot-deep mounds in our backyard have melted to nothing in some places, but every few days it snows it again. Meanwhile Easter is only weeks away…) We were prepared for a reduction in egg production and made a plan for getting as many winter eggs as possible without causing too much stress to our hens. What we didn’t prepare was the most abysmally, blisteringly cold and long winter in the last thirty years. Though our egg production was decent for the conditions, it’s understanding that we went 8-10 weeks with nothing but hungry, cold hens.

It was a far cry from September days when I looked in the cupboard at three dozen eggs and thought “Well, it looks like quiche again for dinner!”

So you can imagine my delight in early March when I optimistically checked the nesting box and found… wait for it… an egg! A glorious, brown egg. (Though at the moment it looked more golden than brown. I’m pretty sure angels were ascending and descending on the coop and I heard the faint sound of harps surrounding me. At least I think…)

Double my delight when two eggs began showing up… then four… and now for the last week, we’re back up to one egg per hen – six eggs a day!

Now that I understand the feast or famine reality of owning a laying flock, I’m all the more interested in preserving our excess for use in our lean days. Otherwise stated, I want to purposefully preserve our extra eggs during warm weather to use next winter. After some research there are two options I want to explore: Dehydrating and freezing eggs.

We’ll save dehydrating for another day. Today, I want to teach you how to freeze eggs. You might not have laying hens to keep up with, but if you find a great deal on eggs, you can stock up to save now without worrying about them going bad. Here’s how it works.

How to Freeze Eggs

Visit our website for complete instructions and lots of photos. Click here!
 
 

How to Make Homemade Butter

wpid CAM03139 1024x759 How to Make Homemade Butter

When we first learned about the benefits of raw milk (and the harm of pasteurized milk from non-A2 cows) we decided it was worth switching to healthier dairy products. Buying a herd share was a no-brainer first step. Our herd share enables us to obtain raw milk from the cow we lease and yogurt and cheese made from her milk. We’re not big milk drinkers so keeping our consumption (both for straight drinking and baking) to 1 gallon a week works fine for us. Unfortunately we’re not able to purchase pre-made butter at the same time.

That’s too bad because though we don’t drink much milk, we do use a lot of butter. A lot. I seriously considered purchasing a second herd share just to have a enough cream for butter making. Unfortunately that’s not in the budget at this time. So instead, I’ve been making a habit of skimming the cream off our weekly gallon of milk and freezing it. I skimmed the milk by pouring it out of a gallon milk jug and into a gallon container with a wide mouth and lid. After a day or so the cream rises to the top and easy to scoop off. (You can see the cream line in the picture below).

wpid PicsArt 1395688899006 1024x759 How to Make Homemade Butter

After four weeks of skimming I ended up with about 7 cups of cream. These jars look very full, and they are, because of course the cream expands as it freezes. I want to be sure to say that I only filled them about ¾ full before placing them in the freezer. Filling them to the top would cause them to burst.

wpid CYMERA 20140324 135231 How to Make Homemade Butter

After collecting to jars’ worth of cream, I decided it was time for my maiden voyage into butter-making.

First I put the frozen jars into the fridge (on the bottom shelf because it is the warmest place in my refrigerator). I couldn’t tell you exactly how long it took the cream to thaw, but it was somewhere between one-and-a-half and two days.  With thawed cream on hand, I was ready to begin.

How to Make Butter from Scratch

These are the tools and ingredients I used:

  • 3.5 cups of cream (approximate)
  • A blender or food processor
  • 1 cup of ice water
  • A strainer
  • A medium to large sized bowl
  • A spatula
  • Paper towel or a cheesecloth
  • Wax or parchment paper
  • Bakers twine
  • Salt (optional)
For instructions and pictures, please visit our website by clicking here.
 
 

Let it Grow! Singing to Your Plants

So you’ve been singing Let it Go from Disney’s movie Frozen all day, every day? Yeah… me too.

It’s not just because it’s a catchy song that is bombarding us from everywhere (although that helps). I personally suffer from a syndrome called can’t-stop-singing-and-don’t-even-realize-I’m-doing-it. Just ask my husband and former co-workers… they’ll tell you. My condition often manifests itself in a rare condition I refer to as Disney-Tourettes. It’s the best way I can think of to describe my inclination to randomly, frequently, loudly burst into Disney song (and sometimes dance). A Whole New World (Aladdin), Part of Your World (The Little Mermaid) and I Just Can’t Wait to be King (The Lion King) frequently worm their way out of my mouth. It has proven embarrassing a time or two, but at this point my life I just choose to embrace it.

That being said, it can still be really (really) annoying personally to have songs stuck in your head. They just go on and on, don’t they my friend?

Further compounding the situation is this: If you’re not sick of the sound of your voice warbling ala Queen Elsa, someone else in your life probably is. Regardless of the quality or quantity of your singing, I’m happy to share with you that an audience exists that will never tire of hearing you bellow Disney tunes!

Your plants.

Seriously.

Singing to Plants

I first heard about this idea in high school. I haven’t been lying to you when I’ve shared that I love a good experiment, as further evidenced by my teenage (but admittedly not scientific) test to see if singing to plants really works. First I just sang while I cleaned my room. I experienced early onset of can’t-stop-singing-and-don’t-even-realize-I’m-doing-it syndrome, so it was pretty convenient. I observed that singing near my plant caused it to noticeably perk up! Cool!

Next I tried playing this archaic thing called a Compact Disc (otherwise called a CD for those of you who aren’t historians) while I was away. I couldn’t tell you how long I played it or exactly what it was (although at that point in my life it was likely either the soundtrack to Titanic or something by Boyz II Men). What I can tell you is that when I returned my spider plant was noticeably learning toward the radio. Well isn’t that neat!?

Naturally my next step was to move the radio to the other side of the plant. Sure enough when I returned the plant was leaning toward the radio again – the opposite direction from its lean the previous attempt.

I’d like to cite this little experiment from my childhood as the reason why I shamelessly sing while gardening, but you and I both know that’s just not the case. (Couldn’t keep it in, Heaven knows I’ve tried.) My constant crooning isn’t going to work like Miracle Grow, but it’s probably having a positive effect. The question is – how?

Carbon Dioxide or Vibration

I’m familiar with two different theories about why singing to your plants could be beneficial. The first theory is that the carbon dioxide emitted as humans sing helps plants to photosynthesize more efficiently, thus making them stronger and helping them to grow faster.

That’s a reasonable theory, but consider this: My plant showed noticeable change listening to Celine Dion declare “My heart will go on and on!” through a machine and not in my bedroom. No humans present. No carbon dioxide emitted. Yet the fact that the music had an effect on the plant, whether beneficial or not, was undeniable. Fortunately those crazy kids at MythBusters took a much more scientific approach to this question and yielded an interesting result. Their findings suggest that the effect of singing (or talking) on plants may have much more to do with vibration than breathing.

Myth Busters Experiment

In this experiment, two soundtracks of spoken words (not singing) were used.

“The skeptical MythBusters procured 60 pea plants and divided them into three greenhouse groups. Then, they recorded two soundtracks — one of loving praise and one of cruel insults — and played them on repeat in two separate greenhouses. A third greenhouse remained mum as an experimental control.

To give the myth a fighting chance of flourishing, the team charted the plants’ growth over 60 days. Afterward, the MythBusters determined the winning greenhouse by comparing plant masses from the three groups. To their surprise, the silent greenhouse performed poorest, producing lower biomass and smaller pea pods than the other two. Although there was no difference in plant quality between the nice greenhouse and the mean greenhouse, the soundtracks seemed to produce a positive effect in both.

Based on the plausible myth, botanists might want to chat with their plants more often, even if what they have to say isn’t all-too friendly.”

Other Experiments

The folks at MythBusters aren’t the only researchers who’ve looked into this idea. Several studies, some scientific and some more general, have been done. There’s no point in recounting gobs of them in this brief article, but I did want to share one I found very interesting. The authors of the blog Dry Stone Garden write:

“A 2007 paper from scientists at South Korea’s National Institute of Agricultural Biotechnology proposed that two genes involved in a plant’s response to light—known as rbcS and Ald—are turned on by music played at 70 decibels. ‘This is about the level of a normal conversation,’ says Marini. The Korean researchers found differing responses depending on the frequency of the sound. The higher the frequency, the more active was the gene response.”

To my knowledge no one has conclusively determined why or how well singing (or talking) to plants helps them grow, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. The next time you feel like channeling your inner Elsa, wander out to your garden. Your neighbors might not thank you, but your tomatoes will.

Did you like this article? Find more just like it at our website www.arcadia-farms.net!

 
 

Give that farmer a tip!

moonique dairy cows kriannmon Give that farmer a tip!

Dairy cows from Moo-nique
{Image Credit}
Kriannmon on Flickr

Today I wanted give you a brief peek into a sweet conversation that recently happened at our house.

Owen has been experiencing some growing pains lately. I heard once that a dose of extra calcium can help to soothe growing pains, so I always offer him a glass of milk. Maybe it’s an old wives tale… maybe it’s all in his head… but he usually calms down and goes to sleep afterwards.

The other night at bedtime I was laying down with him and he said “Mom, can I have a glass of milk?”

“We’re all out” I replied.

“Can’t you just go to the store and get some?” he asked.

“No, because in a couple of days we’re going to get more and it would be wasteful to spend extra money on milk from the store when we’re already paying for milk from the farm, especially since it’s kind of expensive.”

He paused for a moment.

“Umm… Mom? Wouldn’t it make more sense to buy milk from the store?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Do you mean ‘Wouldn’t it cost less money?’”

“Yeah!” he replied “Couldn’t you save money and just get our milk from the store? Wouldn’t that be better?”

“Well, yes, it would cost less money” I said, “but it wouldn’t be better. Here are a couple of things...

Click here to read the rest of the conversation. (It's cute... I promise!)

 
 

2014 Maple Syrup Season Part 1

wpid CYMERA 20140313 153110 2014 Maple Syrup Season Part 1

It’s maple sugarin’ season in Michigan! If I had been on my toes I would have tapped my trees on Thursday, March 6 as the weather conditions were just right for running sap – cold nights and above-freezing, sunny days. But alas, I’m a busy mom and I didn’t get to it until Tuesday, March 11. It was a beautiful, relatively warm, sunny day… and then that evening our lovely Michigan weather crashed from 40 degrees and sun to windchills below zero. (Hey, Old Man Winter – take your prozac, ok!?) Today the temperature has climbed to 22 degrees and tomorrow’s forecast currently calls for a high near 50. All of this up and down cold creates some serious weather-whiplash for us humans, butt the cold nights and warm days are great weather for collecting maple sap.

I won’t go into a ton of detail about how, when and why to collect maple sap because I wrote a pretty comprehensive post about it last year. (Click here to check it out!). This year I just wanted to give you quick update and to let you know that we’re trying something a wee bit different.

Click here to read the rest of this article.
 
 

Introduction to Gardening Workshop

introduction to gardening workshop

I’m thrilled to announce that Arcadia Farms will be hosting an Introduction to Gardening Workshop on Saturday, March 22 from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm at the Holiday Inn West in Kalamazoo! Participants must pre-register at www.arcadia-farms.net/classes.

If you’re a new gardener who’s had a difficult time getting started, or if you’ve always wanted a garden but don’t know where to start, this class is for you!

Participants will learn…

  • Basic gardening terms
  • The best place and method for gardening at their location
  • Plant combinations to avoid or to encourage
  • Organic methods for growing, fertilizing and protecting their crops
  • How and when to both select and start seeds
  • How to transplant seedlings into the garden
  • How and when to water, weed, fertilize and apply pest control
  • How to make compost and use it in the garden
  • Resources for further study and support

We’ll have hands-on exercises to increase your comfort level. You’ll go home not only with one or two starter seedlings, but also with the inspiration and confidence you need to make this year’s garden a success! I hope you’ll consider joining us or passing this information on to a friend who may be interested.

The cost is $38 per person and space is limited. For a printable flyer, click here.

 
 

Square Foot Garden Seed Tape

how to make seed tape

Seeds come in many shapes and sizes. The tiniest seeds – such as radishes, carrots and onions – can be difficult to sow with precision. One way to address this problem is to use seed tape. Fortunately seed tape is easy to make, store and use, both in traditional row gardens and Square Foot Gardening raised beds. Seed tape helps you conserve seeds, minimizes (or eliminates) the need to thin plants later in the season, and makes a great winter-time project to give you a jump start on spring. Also gardeners with back issues will find this method of sowing seeds much less painful than bending over a garden bed. Plus if you’re a neat freak, it will give you control over having a beautifully, perfectly spaced garden. Won’t the neighbors be jealous?

For pictures and all of the instructions for creating square foot garden seed tape, click here.

 
 

2014 Seed Starting Plan

free seed starting plan software

Earlier this month I shared the 2014 Main Garden Plan for Arcadia Farms (and you can see it by clicking here). I’m still working on plans for the Fenceline Garden because I’d like to transition it from a garden of annuals to a space for perennial fruit and herbs. (Here’s a picture of what it looked like last year.)

The seed catalogs have started pouring in and, just like last year, I’m looking to get a jump start on my spring garden by starting seeds indoors. Because last year’s garden was the source of my CSA produce, I needed to consider criteria such as yield (high), days to maturity (short) and uniqueness as I selected seeds. This year the Main Garden’s primary function is to feed our family although I will occasionally be selling excess produce or crops planted especially for our brokerage customer(s). That allows me to have different criteria, including:

  • Suiting our family’s tastes and needs
  • Limiting varieties to better facilitate seed saving (less chance of cross-pollination)
  • Timing for personal consumption (spread out) rather than commercial (large amounts maturing at once)

Fortunately I’ve assembled quite a collection of seeds over the last few years – including purchases and seeds from my own garden – so I have relatively few seeds that I need to buy. My plan is to save even more seeds from the garden this year and slowly reduce my dependence on outside sources.

Click here to read the rest of this article, including:

 
 

Holiday Henhouse

This is our first winter with chickens. As I was putting up the Christmas decorations this year I thought it would be fun to spread some yuletide cheer to the chicken coop. It’s nothing extravagant, but it makes me feel extra Christmas-y every morning when it’s time to feed the hens and gather the eggs.

christmas decorated chicken coop

christmas decorated chicken coop

christmas decorated chicken coop

christmas decorated chicken coop

christmas decorated chicken coop

christmas decorated chicken coop

The coop looks especially neat in the early hours of the morning when our red heat light is still on. (The lamp is currently on from 2:30 am to 8:30 am every morning to provide enough light and heat for egg production.)

christmas decorated chicken coop

christmas decorated chicken coop

christmas decorated chicken coop

I’m already looking forward to getting extra-creative with decorating the coop next year.

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.  

 
 

Freezing Cookie Dough

Christmas means lots of things to lots of people. We have several family traditions and one of them involves baking gobs of cookies. The lineup varies from year to year but a few staples remain: Oatmeal Scotchies, Sugar Cookies and Gingerbread Cookies. (We don’t eat them all; many are given as gifts. But… we eat plenty.) In November of this year I had a brilliant idea: Wouldn’t it be cool if I whipped up some cookie dough during this I’m-not-crazy-busy-with-holiday-things-to-do time, stick it in the freezer and then (viola!) pull it out just in time to make hassle-free cookies with Christmas carols blaring in the background?

It was a brilliant idea!

I didn’t do it.

But I haven’t given up on the idea. And since pretty much any time of the year is a good time for freshly baked cookies, I’ve decided to make double batches during Christmas baking and save some for the rest of the winter. (You know, because I need extra hurdles to my diet-related New Year’s resolutions…)

I’ve personally never frozen cookie dough before. Just in case you haven’t either, here are tips I found on how to freeze both drop (chunky) cookies, such as chocolate chip, and for cut out cookies, like gingerbread and sugar cookies. I’ve also included links to my favorite recipes. Enjoy!

Freezing Cut-Out Cookie Dough

Recipe: Christmas Sugar Cookies

Recipe: Easy Gingerbread Cookies

1. Mix dough per recipe.

2. On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into three roughly-equal sized sections. (Note: Refrigerating the dough for 15-20 minutes will make it easier to work with.)

how to freeze cookie dough

3. On the floured surface, shape each section of dough into a disc about one inch thick.

how to freeze cookie dough

4. Place the disc on top of a sheet of wax or parchment paper. Fold the paper around the disc. (Optional: Use a piece of tape to secure the paper.)

how to freeze cookie dough

how to freeze cookie dough

how to freeze cookie dough

how to freeze cookie dough

5. Place each disc into a freezer bag. Remove as much air as possible from the bag before sealing. Label the bag with the contents, date, proper oven temperature and number of minutes to bake.

how to freeze cookie dough

how to freeze cookie dough

6. Dough can be stored up to three months.

7. To bake with frozen dough, remove the disc from the freezer and allow it to warm at room temperature for 10 minutes (or until pliable). Roll the dough out per recipe directions and cut cookies.

Want even faster cookies the next time you have a craving? Try this:

  1. Create cookie dough per recipe.
  2. Roll dough out to desired thickness and cut cookies.
  3. Transfer cookies to a room-temperate cookie sheet lined with wax or parchment paper.
  4. Place cookie sheet into freezer until… wait for it… frozen. (Could take 1 to 6 hours depending on your freezer’s temperature and the thickness of your cookies.)
  5. Once cookies are frozen, transfer them (quickly, to avoid a thawed, sticky situation) to a pre-labeled freezer bag and return to the freezer. Label information should include the contents, the date, proper oven temperature and number of minutes to bake.
  6. To bake the frozen cookies add an extra minute or two to the recommended baking time.

Freezing Drop (Chunky) Cookie Dough

Recipe: Oatmeal Scotchies

Recipe: Minimally Processed Chocolate Chip Cookies


how to freeze cookie dough
  1. Create dough per recipe.
  2. Place portioned scoops of dough onto a lined (wax or parchment paper) cookie sheet as you normally would. Since the cookies will not be immediately baked (and thus won’t spread out) you can place them close together.
  3. Place the cookie sheet full of portioned dough into the freezer until frozen solid. (This process will take at least six hours; you could also freeze them overnight.)
  4. Label a freezer bag with the contents, date, proper oven temperature and number of minutes to bake.
  5. Place completely-frozen cookie “balls” into freezer bag. Squeeze out as much air as possible before closing the bag. Cookies can be frozen for up to three months.
  6. To bake with frozen dough, add an extra minute or two to the recommended baking time.

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally. 

 
 

How to Make Homemade Almond Extract

Life, according to my belly, can be categorized into the following seasons: Soup season, grilling season, roasting season and baking season. We, dear friends, are in the heart of baking season! Our household has no concept of portion control loves good food. And while I can’t say that the food we eat is always good for us (it’s hard to claim that cake is healthy) we do strive to make everything with natural, wholesome ingredients.

That’s why last year I kicked our artificial baking supplies to the curb. No sprinkles, no colored sugar, no artificial food dye and no artificial flavorings. The flavorings were the most difficult to part with. Fortunately I learned to make homemade vanilla extract. It’s actually quite economical, all-natural and super tasty! When we ran out mid-year I made a second batch and also created some orange extract (which I’ve yet to actually use). So far, having homemade vanilla extract on hand has met my flavoring needs… save for one: Almond.

I miss almond flavoring.

There are some things that just need an amaretto-esqe touch.

Why is it then that it has taken me all of this time to think of making my own? (Silly me!) I wish I had started this a month ago so I’d have homemade almond extract in time for Christmas goodies.

At any rate, making almond extract (or any extract, for that matter) is so easy!

Click here for the recipe!

 
 

Planting Fruit Trees in Fall

Spring is always a busy and exciting time for gardeners. I’m no exception. Logically I spent a lot of time in the garden this spring, planting, prepping and simply enjoying the sights and sounds of nature waking up from her winter nap. One of the things I enjoy most about preparing the spring garden is the sight and smell of our neighbor’s apple tree. Apple blossoms are some of my favorite flowers! This spring, for the first time ever, as I looked around me I noticed that the deluge of beautiful white blossoms gracing my neighbors tree were echoed underneath a bramble of pine branches and other tree limbs at the back of our property.

After further investigation I discovered that in the back corner of our one-acre yard there was an apple tree growing! Sadly, the apple tree was growing in the shadow of a mulberry tree (planted only few feet away) which itself was growing in the shadow of a large, scraggly pine tree (just a few more feet away). All three trees were living but doing poorly.

I knew right away that I needed to rescue that poor little apple tree! Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have anything against pine trees or mulberry trees, but I’m an opportunist, and the idea of a ‘wasted’ apple tree already established on my own property was too much. The obvious first step was to cut down the two overbearing trees growing so intrusively nearby. That first step also lead us down the path of finally deciding where to put our micro-orchard. This back section of the property was also home to a medium-sized pine tree and a large cherry tree (not the kind with edible fruit). We never (ever ever) use that part of the yard for anything. (In fact, it probably only gets mowed a handful of times each year.) The area gets great sun so we decided to cut down the other two trees and replace each with an apple tree.

So down came the trees – Ryan and my father-in-law did most of the work (although my mother-in-law and I helped considerably with the clean up). My in-laws heat their home with a wood-burning furnace so the bulk of the lumber went to them. I kept a few logs for hugelkultur expansion and for edging a few mounded beds. I also kept some of the straightest branches to create tee-pees for caging tomatoes. But when all was said and done, the main thing we were left with was a big fat empty space.

It’s amazing how much larger that part of the yard looks without the trees there! Before I thought of it as a tiny sliver of space occupied by a random pine tree. Removing the trees has revealed its true identity – another sunny section so wide that I could easily fill it up by doubling the size of our already large garden. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not interested in adding any more space to our roughly 1,500 square foot garden.) It’s a great space for fruit trees!

Around that time we purchased two trees on sale from Lowes. We didn’t have a very big selection to choose from so we went with a good cooking variety (Macintosh) and a good fresh-eating variety (Golden Delicious). We were careful to read the labels to make sure they would pollinate each other (apples need another tree in order to pollinate and produce fruit).

And then… we got busy…

And then… the CSA season came to a close….

And then… the weather started turning cooler…

And then… it straight-up snowed…

And all the while that little voice in my head kept saying “Blerg… I need to get those trees planted!”

Finally this week we had a little warm up. (Ok, a big warm up followed by a quick cool down that caused massive storms in our corner of the Midwest!) You never know when the weather will turn in Michigan, especially during the months where seasonal transition are common (October and November are on that list) so I knew I needed to make my move this week or risk losing my chance completely.

I did some quick research about tree planting. Everyone recommends doing this in the early spring. Of course… Not surprisingly there were several cautionary tales about fall planting. But then without too much more effort I found instructions on planting trees in fall. I even found a few forums where experienced gardeners said that fall was an excellent time to plant fruit trees because it gives them a jump start in the spring. Really, I only had two other options. The first alternative idea was to “heal them in” which sounds an awful lot like just planting them to me (only in an area that will be more protected from cold and wind). I’m not a fan of planting them twice, thanks.

The other option was to overwinter them in the green house. I wasn’t a big fan of this either because of that time in late winter where the temperate outside are still very cold (mid-30s or colder) but the sun is warming the greenhouse to spring-like temperatures that might cause the trees to bud too early. I couldn’t think of a good place to move them to during this time period without sending them into shock.

So at any rate, I planted them. It was super-easy. Here’s what I did…

Planting Fruit Trees in Fall

Step 1: Dig a hole about twice the width of the root ball and just as deep as the root ball.

planting fruit trees in fall

I ended up widening this hole after taking the picture.

Step 2: Loosen the roots so that they are encouraged to grow outward.

planting fruit trees in fall

Before loosening the roots…

planting fruit trees in fall

After loosening the roots…

Step 3: Place the tree in the hole. For directions on how deep you should plant the tree, I recommend that you read this. Depth matters – big time! In summary, it’s better to err on the side of planting too shallow than too deep. Be sure to avoid planting soil above where the tree is grafted to the root system to avoid scion rooting.

Step 4: Cover the roots with quality compost. Ideally the compost would be aged. I ended up using a mixture of mulched fall leaves, rabbit manure (not composted) and compost from this year’s pile (garden clippings, food scraps, etc.). Be sure to tamp the compost down as you go along. The purpose of this is to reduce air pockets which can cause root issues.

planting fruit trees in fall

This baby apple tree has been planted with a compost mixture and tamped down to get rid of air pockets.

Step 5: Water your trees and add a layer of mulch to keep them warm and retain moisture. I didn’t read this anywhere, but for the same reason as Step 3 (scion rooting) I made sure to keep the mulch away from the base of the tree. Ironically, our mulch comes from the large branches of the trees we cut down to make room for the new apples.

planting fruit trees in fall

Ironically the mulch used to surround this tree came from the branches of the trees that came down to make way for the micro orchard.

planting fruit trees in fall

This apple tree is ready for winter (I hope)!

So after putting it off for months and months… about 30 minutes of work (maybe less) has finally made us the proud owners of a micro orchard. I can’t wait for the beautiful flowers next spring – and the amazing fruit in the future!

More to Do

Want to know a little secret? I still have a cherry tree and two blueberry bushes to plant! I planned to plant them on the same day as our apple trees but ran into some questions. The cherry tree is destined to take root very (very) near a place in the front yard where we previously had a diseased ornamental cherry tree. (We cut that little guy down at the same time as the trees out back.) I want to do some research to find out how to safeguard the second tree from the same health issues that overtook its predecessor before moving forward. Part of me is worried that I just may not be able to plant there at all (the original tree stump is still there… rotting as it sits in the ground). As far as the blueberry bushes go, I just wanted to check one last time that the site I had chosen for them gets enough sun. Hopefully they’ll be in before this weekend! I can’t wait for all the delicious fruit to come!

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Winter Egg Production

If you live in Michigan then you don’t need me to tell you that the weather is getting cold and the days are getting darker. Our yard has already been covered in a dual blanket of leaves and snow several times this month. Another sign at Arcadia Farms that cold weather has arrived can be found in the chicken coop. Or, more specifically, can’t be found in the chicken coop. No eggs. Our hens have stopped laying completely. We’ve been eggless for over a week now.

Making the transition from egg producers to egg consumers has highlighted how blessed we are to have our own chickens. Last Friday my grocery list included eggs for the first time in about six months. I confess that I felt almost like a fraud as I reached into the cooler of eggs at Meijer. In addition to my farmer-shame, I discovered that ‘natural’ eggs at the store are up to $4 a dozen now – Yikes! I’m eager to get our girls back into production, so here’s the plan.

Why Hens Stop Producing Eggs in Fall/Winter

why chickens stop laying eggsIn early October our hens’ egg production slowed to four or five eggs a day rather than the usual six. We suspect that the hens were in the process of molting. Molting is when chickens produce new plumage for winter and shed their summer feathers. The process is aimed at preparing the bird for winter and takes a significant amount of energy to complete. The energy normally spent on egg production is consumed by the molting process.

We’re cool with losing out on a few eggs here and there while we wait patiently for nature to do its thing. Or at least, we were, until nature started to look like an empty nesting box.

Last week our chickens abruptly stopped laying completely. The event coincided with me cleaning out the coop and refreshing the bedding. Though I knew that was an unlikely culprit in the lack of eggs, I decided to keep the hens in their paddock for an entire day to make sure they hadn’t just picked a new favorite spot to nest. No dice eggs.

Thanks to a little research and feedback from a homesteading Facebook group I discovered the other two reasons why chickens stop laying eggs as the weather cools: Lack of warmth and lack of sunlight.

Chickens require about 14 total hours of sunlight per day to produce eggs. An article on Backyard Chickens does an excellent job of explaining why:

“Chickens are ‘told’ to produce eggs by their endocrine system, a system of different glands and organs that produce hormones.  As the daylight hours shorten in winter, changes in these hormones shut down egg production. Adding additional light triggers the endocrine system into action, causing them to produce more eggs. Continuously giving chickens light in the winter fools their bodies into thinking that the days aren’t getting shorter at all.”

Another cold-weather factor impacts egg production is (no surprise here) temperature. Chickens lay best when the ambient temperature is between 52 and 79 degrees Fahrenheit. When temperatures fall outside of those parameters, egg production slows or stops. Also sudden, extreme changes in temperature can trigger an equally sudden stop to egg laying. (If ‘sudden, extreme change in temperature’ doesn’t describe fall in Michigan, I don’t know what does!)

Our hens had already begun molting in early October (with a subsequent drop in eggs) but during the week of our first official snow (which contained a sudden and large drop in ambient temperatures) they stopped producing entirely.

How to Re-Start Egg Production

The prescription for getting our hens producing again is pretty straight forward. Step 1 is to provide more light. After research and discussion with experienced chicken owners, it appears that adding heat and changing diet may be helpful but don’t always prove necessary.

Winter Lighting in the Chicken Coop

Artificial lighting can be used to supplement sunlight and provide chickens with the total 14 hours needed daily to produce eggs when days are short. We’re not able to hardwire a light in our coop at this time so we’ve run an outdoor extension cord to the same light we used to keep our birdies warm when they were chicks.

lighting chicken coop

Based on my research the best practice is to add early-morning light rather than evening light. Additional evening light can have an impact on the birds’ temperaments and might also result in adjusting the birds to be afternoon layers. For some people these potential side effects might not be a burden. In the event of adding evening light, a low-tech way is to turn the light on in the evening when you’d normally turn your house lights on (5:30ish these days) and turning them off when you go to bed. For early-morning light, or for those of you who want a more hands-off approach, installing a timer will do the trick. I plan to spend between $20-$30 at a home improvement store to find the right solution to add early-morning light without having to get up in the wee hours of the morning.

lighting chicken coopI’ve talked to several homesteaders who’ve had success getting their hens to lay in winter by simply using a white light bulb (40 or 60 watt). Using a high efficiency bulb can make this an environmentally and financially friendly option. Meanwhile, using a red heat lamp (like the one used to keep little chicks warm as they grow) costs more to operate; however, the red light may actually be more beneficial to your flock. Research cited by Animalens Inc. shows that chickens who wear red-tinted contact lenses (yes, seriously) “behave differently from birds that don’t. The chickens are calmer, less prone to pecking and cannibalism; the mortality rate is lower. For a variety of reasons, some not fully understood, they also tend to eat less feed while producing, on average, the same size and number of eggs as other chickens (even a bit more).” I’m not itching to run out and buy contact lenses for my chickens (especially at $20 per pair!) but I’m willing to buy the fact that red might be overall better for the disposition (and egg production) of my birdies.

Warming the Chicken Coop in Winter

Of course using a red heat bulb in the coop helps to address both lighting and warming. If red lighting isn’t an option for you, proper insulation will go a long way to helping your chickens to stay warm. Your inclination might be to simply close up the coop tightly, but remember that proper ventilation is important! You don’t want a direct breeze blowing on the place where your hens roost, however, air flow is important to keep molds and mildews from building up as your chickens add heat and moisture (body heat and breath) to the coop. Overarching all of this is the admonition to select birds that do well in winter weather. In general heavier breeds will be more likely to thrive during cold weather.

A good point to keep in mind is that if you heat your coop your chickens will learn to depend on that warmth. What happens then when if you lose power? A natural way to add a small amount of heat to the coop is to use the deep liter method. With this method the decomposition of liter and manure will add some (not sure how much) heat to the coop all winter long.

In addition to what’s around them, chickens can be kept warm by what is in them. One site suggests feeding the chickens corn in the evening so that they are digesting during the night (adding warmth). Warmed water may also help your birds stay warm. You can buy water heaters from a store like Tractor Supply Company.

heated base chicken waterer

Or you could try something like this…

Should We Re-Start Egg Production?

You can see that re-starting egg production (or keeping it from stopping) when the days become short and cold can be very straightforward – add a heat lamp. But before you head out to the coop, consider this: Should you?

Healthy, happy chickens are likely to produce at least some eggs during the winter. Clearly adding artificial light and heat means you’re adding things that naturally-raised chickens have survived without for many, many generations. There’s some debate about whether or not adding artificial light and heat may have long-term negative effects on the health of your chickens. More specifically, there is debate about the health impact on a chicken who is forced to continue laying when she should be molting.

One fact that is not up for debate is whether or not adding artificial light will shorten the laying longevity of a hen. Chickens are born with all the eggs they will ever produce, so, inducing them to lay (by using artificial light) when they naturally would not (cold, light-deprived winter days) is essentially hastening the day when your hen will be ready to retire. For those of you keeping chickens as pets, this is a serious point to consider. For those raising chickens for their eggs, it may be of less concern.

Our Plans

I want to treat our chickens humanely and provide them with a healthy environment. However… I also want eggs. And though I am planning to keep these birdies for their whole life, I’m also planning on their life ending right about the time they stop laying (likely about 3 years). After that, I’ll keep them… in a ½ gallon canning jar on the shelf or sealed in my freezer. You can imagine then that I’m not too concerned about hastening the advent of each hen’s final egg. I am, however, concerned about raising my hens in a way that is healthy for them (and ultimately, my family). I don’t like the idea of our flock adjusting to artificial heat (i.e., red heat bulb) because I worry about the potential harm it could do to them if when we have one of those famous Michigan winter power outages. Though red light may be more soothing than white, my hope is that providing light from a regular bulb will feel more natural when delivered in the morning (kind of like an early sunrise… maybe I’m kidding myself…). If I see a change in temperament in the flock I’ll likely switch to a red light for good since I also read that switching back and forth can be even more stressful than simply using a white light.

I’ll need to do more research, but I’m considering giving our flock a good 4-6 weeks off each fall (October and November) to molt without the presence of artificial light and heat. After that time, then I think I’ll move on to adding artificial white light. What do you think? Any concerns about that plan? Any tips you can provide this rookie chicken-keeper with? You know I appreciate all of it!

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.   

 
 

Pruning Blackberries

when to prune blackberries

We have blackberries. Just a small section of canes growing on a portion of our backyard fence. I didn’t plant them. Either the previous owners placed them there or nature was just crafty about placement. Whichever is the case, I have to confess that they weren’t even noticeable until the spring of 2010 (four years after we moved in) when I looked out into the yard and saw a beautiful spray of white flowers over the back fence. Ever since I’ve been making breakfast-time trips to the backyard every spring and summer to add fresh berries to my yogurt. In 2013 we received the most and biggest berries ever! Other than a bit of pruning this spring and training a few pliable canes through the fence I haven’t done much with these plants. They’re starting to get a bit unruly so I decided to look into best practices for caring for blackberries. Namely, my goal was to prune them. Here’s what I found…

Why prune blackberries?

when to prune blackberries

Pruning blackberries has several straight-forward benefits. First, pruning helps to encourage growth during the next season. Pruning enables growth in cane strength but especially encourages lateral branching (which is where new berries will come from). Pruning also reduces the ability of diseases to spread.

At the end of this fall I noticed that my blackberries had taken on the same spots as my beans and cucumbers. I’m beginning to notice a trend that plants most impacted by what I’m currently guessing to be anthracnose are often located near a mulberry tree, and my mulberry leaves are spotted as well. There’s certainly more research to be done, but that’s another post. Meanwhile, I discovered yesterday that the majority of my blackberry leaves are spotted and diseased. Time to prune for sure!

When should you prune blackberries?

There are two times to prune blackberries: Spring and fall. In the fall (or better, at the end of the summer when berries are no longer being produced) pruning is done to remove dead or 2-year-old canes. Turns out blackberries only produce food on canes that are two year sold. After they’ve produced you’ll never get fruit from them again. Cut those puppies out to make room for new growth! This is also a time to prune away diseased canes and leaves (although this can also be done in the midst of the season to promote plant health).

At spring time blackberries will benefit from tip pruning where you (brace yourself) cut off the tips. Tip pruning causes the canes to branch out and provide more space for fruit to grow.

How do you prune blackberries?

Pruning blackberries is very straight-forward. Use clean pruning shears and cut the canes off at the desired height. If your canes are not supported, keep them around 3 feet tall. For supported canes, cut them off at the height of your support (i.e. fence). I cut mine about 1 foot short of the fence this year to encourage more growth and to give me time to tie them to the fence this spring before they get too large.

I wasn’t expected my own blackberry pruning experience to be quite so… extensive. Between old growth and disease, I ended up chopping off nearly everything, including new growth. It was a little scary, but these plants are so hardy that I know they’ll come back aggressively. I plan to let the branches dry out a bit over the next few days, chop them into small sections and have a little campfire evening.

 

when to prune blackberries

Our blackberries in the spring, 2013.

when to prune blackberries

Our blackberries in the fall 2013, before pruning.

 

when to prune blackberries

Our blackberries in the fall 2013, after pruning.
{Note: Most of the green you see is just the pile of pruned canes piled behind the fence.}

when to prune blackberries

The remaining, healthy canes are now woven neatly into the supporting fence.

I can’t wait to see what the blackberries look like next spring!

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.  

 
 
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