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7 Reasons to Appreciate Winter

Reasons to appreciate winter

I’m a Michigan girl, which means not only am I used to four seasons but dramatic, often vacillating transitions between those seasons. In the spring and fall it is not uncommon to have sunny, 80-degree weather and windy, perhaps rainy 40-degree weather shortly after (sometimes in the same day). Until recently, I always remember winter being abysmally cold and sustained with ample snow. The last few winters in Michigan have been very mild, even if they were sprinkled by some bad storms here and there. In fact last winter, I was still digging in dirt not long before Christmas!

This winter is making up for all the mildness we’ve recently experienced. We’ve had a record-breaking cold snap with day after day in subzero temperatures (not to mention the deep wind chill). I now have a new definition of abysmally cold.  And I should know – I’m an expert in hating highly disliking cold. I can’t stand being cold. I’m not really a fan of snow. I appreciate a white Christmas and then it can all go away as far as I’m concerned. Give me liberty summer or give me death the furnace set at 75!

I’ve never understood why people love winter so much. I especially dislike it when the weather starts just baaarrrrley turning cold in the fall (say, the first 60-degree day of September) and Facebook is alight with “Oh, fall is here!” and “Cold weather is coming!” and “I just broke out the Christmas music!” Really? Really?!? I get so annoyed with folks who drag Christmas into Thanksgiving and Halloween.

I’ve always thought of myself as a champion of holiday sanctification; a seasonal purist. Please – no Christmas trees before pumpkins, thank you! But then as December rolled into January and I started blogging about garden plans and seed starting and “Spring is almost here!” I realized… I’m one of them. I wish away winter just like the Christmas-music-in-September-Nazis fancy truncating summer.

Then I had another strange epiphany… trapped in my house for days on end by sub-zero windchills, I’ve spent a lot of time looking out. And contemplating what I see… and thinking about the bright side. And I realized… winter’s not all that bad. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to actually be thankful for winter. Here are a few…

Some Plants Need Cold Weather

Some of our favorite garden plants actually benefit from a cold snap. For example, according to Grey Duck Garlic, “garlic requires vernalization (exposed to cold) before or after planting. Cold temperatures stimulate garlic to sprout and develop a bulb.” Also many fruit trees – including Apple and Cherry – have a chilling time requirement. Here’s an explanation from The Housing Forum:  “Fruit trees require a period of time called chill time which accumulates throughout cold weather seasons. Chill time begins as soon as the leaves fall off of the tree and extends to the first bloom. Cherry trees require between 600 and 700 hours of chill time to produce ample and healthy blossoms.”

Cold Weather Diminishes Pest Populations

I’ve heard more-experienced gardeners talk before about the fact that winter weather helps to reduce pest populations, namely bugs. A deep freeze like we’re experiencing is likely to have a deeper impact. For example, a tiger mosquito’s eggs are destroyed below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. When it comes to garden pests, a deep freeze is hard on moth populations as well. Apparently adult moths mate at night when temperatures are above freezing, and since those days have been few and far between so far this winter, we might be in luck.

Snow Replenishes Waterways

Water is an important natural resources, especially in Michigan. During the summer drought two years ago some waterways were very low and dry. Since snowfall eventually replenishes tributaries and aquifers, it also replenishes our lakes, ponds and streams in time. National Geographic reports that “the recent Arctic blast that gripped much of the nation will likely contribute to a healthy rise in Great Lakes water levels in 2014.”

Winter Wonderlands are Beautiful

Have you looked outside? My yard looks like this – isn’t it beautiful? From within a warm house with a warm cup of tea in my hand, all that white stuff’s not so bad. (P.S. The pictures just don’t do it justice!)

reasons to appreciate winter

Reasons to appreciate winter

Reasons to appreciate winter

Reasons to appreciate winter

Reasons to appreciate winter

Cabin Fever and Quiet Time

No one likes cabin fever, especially when you’re really trapped inside and not just staying home to be road-wise. But if we’re honest, most of us could benefit from a day or two of quiet together-time at home with family. Our family has broken out books and games and crafts during the last few snow days that haven’t seen the light of day in a while.

Winter-Related Sports and Commerce

Not all of us are stuck inside during snowy weather. Some crazy people live for the day when there’s enough snowfall to ski, snowmobile or go sledding. For yet others getting out into the elements is less about choice and more about employment. We’re so indebted to the men and women who make their living by clearing roadways, parking lots and driveways so that the rest of us can go about our business safely. All of these activities have an impact on our economy by creating seasonal jobs and income.

Spring Really Is Coming

Ironically, one of the benefits of winter is that it helps us appreciate warmer weather. Close friends of ours from Malaysia often commented on how much they loved the change in seasons, with winter ranking as their favorite time of year. They came from a climate of warm, warm, warm day after day. That sounds pretty tempting when I’m lugging water out to the chicken coop with a -30 degree wind smacking my face. But if Michigan was always warm, warm, warm day after day I would never get to experience that euphoric feeling when the days suddenly turn substantially warmer and the sun on my face reminds me of how much vitamin D I’ve been missing (and how great it makes me feel)! Or when I awake (physically and otherwise) to the realization that songbirds brought me out of slumber. Or when the trees explode with green seemingly overnight and I remember how full of life the world is. I plod through the winter and do my best to be thankful for what we receive. But when songbirds and sunshine and green things remind me of just how cold and stark and quiet the winter has been, I appreciate these things all the more. Spring really is coming… and that hope would be meaningless if it weren’t for winter.

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Winter Egg Update

In mid-November I shared that our hens had stopped laying eggs completely due to molting, cold weather and minimal daylight hours. Though chickens can and will lay occasional eggs during cold, dark winter days, we decided not to endure an entire winter of feeding chickens who aren’t ‘giving back’ (or the shame of buying eggs at the grocery store)! After research and input form other homesteaders, we settled on the following plan:
  1. Add artificial light in the early morning hours so that the hens receive at least 14 hours of light a day.
  2. Use an eco-friendly white light in our heat lamp. Saves money and energy.
  3. Avoid using a red heat lamp to insure against the scenario where the chickens get used to the extra heat and we subsequently lose power.
  4. Feed more protein to the flock.

Today I’d like to give you a quick update on the progress of our plan.

First, I bought an outdoor automatic timer found in the holiday lighting section of Menards (less than $10). Though I can only plug one thing into it at a time, it allows me to create several (maybe a dozen?) different schedules for times of the day and days of the week. We’ve opted to turn our light on from 2:30 AM to 8:30 AM every morning. It’s a little longer than necessary, but based on the shifting time of the sunrise it will keep us covered without me having to remember to revise the schedule. (Call me lazy…)

The day after I finally go the light installed I went out to feed the chickens. I peeked into the coop from the door opposite the nesting box to see if there were any eggs. (I’d been doing this for several weeks – since the chickens hadn’t laid in egg in sooo long – and because it’s easier then hopping the fence to get to the nesting box.) I noticed that an egg was laying on the floor of the coop below the nesting box; it must have rolled out. How exciting! We had an egg! I hadn’t expected the light to work so quickly…

I hopped the fence, opened the nesting box and, imagine my surprise, when I discovered 16 eggs! No wonder one had rolled out…

The lesson: Yes, chickens still lay winter eggs naturally in the absence of supplemental light and heat.

True as this may be, I had no idea how many eggs per day this 16 represented (it had been three to four weeks since I’d checked… I think… I wasn’t keeping track) and one egg every few days is still not going to cut it as justification when Mr. Shank is reviewing our feed bill.

At any rate, using the light seemed to work fairly well. The girls started laying about 3 eggs a day. Recently we’ve had several four-egg days.

winter eggs

By adding supplemental light and heat we’ve been getting about three eggs a day.

winter eggs

Three eggs a day ain’t bad!

However, two things happened that made me alter the plan. First, the chickens did seem to be getting restless, even a little aggressive from their 6-hour stints locked up inside the lighted coop. Also, on very super cold days (of which we several in late November/early December) they stopped laying completely. With these things in mind, I decided to switch to the red heat lamp.

red heat light lamp chicken coop

As I mentioned in last month’s winter egg production post, red light has proven to be useful in calming chickens’ nerves. (Weird, right?) I’m certainly not conducting a scientific experiment here, but I can say that the hens seem to be calmer now that we’ve been using the red light. I have no idea if it’s just a factor of time or if it has to do with the warmth of the heat lamp, but the two chickens whose feathers were very sparse have filled back in nicely.

So far things are going well – we’re pleased with three or four eggs a day. I’ve been cooking up food scraps (like carrot peelings, apple cores, sweet potato leftovers, bits of steak, etc.) into a warm batch of… goop… for the hens to enjoy. And though I know they’re a heavy breed intended to withstand winter just fine on their own, I can tell that they’re not fond of the snow. They come out in the morning to eat and drink but usually spend their day in the coop.

I bet they can’t wait for six-eggs-a-day season spring.

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Four-Egg Day

Ever since wintery weather began we’ve been receiving one to three eggs each day. After skillful interrogation I still haven’t been able to get the hens to spill the beans on which girls aren’t pulling their weight!

Meanwhile, three eggs a day isn’t bad.

Yesterday, however, was an extraordinary day. Yesterday was a four egg day. Apparently whoever decided to start pitching in is a little out of practice, because she gave us this…

odd shaped egg

Honestly, the first thing I thought when I saw it was – ouch! Then I thought about this

I’ll bet the funny-looking torpedo egg tastes just as good as the rest.

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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!

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Winter Gardening Confessions (An Update)

garden in January

Seems like anytime I’m making small talk these days I’m asked “How’s your garden?” (No complaints here; I’m happy to share!)

So, let me just tell you how the garden is. It’s good. But not as expected. I just paid the garden a visit yesterday for the first time in a couple of weeks. (A couple of weeks?? Hmm… I feel like this post is part confession…) Here’s what I found.

Winter Update

The peas still look green and healthy. They’re a wee bit larger and beginning to tangle about each other, but otherwise there’s no change. The lettuce in this bed looks healthy but is essentially the same size as in November. This is also the bed with an outdoor thermometer inside. Here are the stats: Under the row cover, it was 65*. Outside the row cover, it was 34* and sunny. The high temp was recorded at 96* and the lowest recorded temp was 18*.

This lettuce seedling hasn't had any noticeable growth in over a month.

This lettuce seedling hasn’t had any noticeable growth in over a month.

Peas growing in January

The peas are (barely) growing under a row cover on this January day.

Confession: The kale bed has never been covered (for several reasons). Despite being buried under several inches of snow, half of the kale looks good still. The other half was transplanted from the Fenceline Garden in late fall and never did look terribly healthy. I’m going to sample both tomorrow (perhaps in an omelet?) to see how they taste.

This kale is growing under a blanket of fall leaves and snow.

This kale is growing under a blanket of fall leaves and snow.

The cover over the carrot bed was partially collapsed and covered in some major ice chunks. After I remedied that situation, I crawled inside (yup… I confess I was too lazy to open the iced-to-the-ground side) and plucked a couple of carrots from the center of the bed. In fact, I ate them while I wrote this post! They’re pretty small (maybe three inches) but they sure taste good! Can I tell you a dirty little secret? (More confessions…) These carrots were transplanted from a different bed. I know, I know, you shouldn’t transplant root vegetables… but there were a bunch of small carrots still hanging around this fall and I was curious to see what would happen if I transplanted them to another bed for winter growing. If these two carrots are any indication, they haven’t grown at all, but they sure are tasty!

Hard to believe it, but there are carrots "growing" under those leaves. More like "stored" under those leaves.

Hard to believe it, but there are carrots “growing” under those leaves. More like “stored” under those leaves.

Next I checked the bed with beets and chard growing in it, both crops still there from fall. They don’t seem to have grown much but I did pick a few beets for dinner. However, my favorite part of this bed isn’t edible… not yet anyway. Late this fall (November?) I direct seeded spinach to this bed. I’d given up hope that they would ever germinate, but there they were today smiling up at me! These are about the only plants that have actually shown growth during the winter. It will be fun to see if they continue to grow to a harvest-able state during the winter or if they simply overwinter till we hit springtime.

This bed has chard and which have shown no noticeable growth in over a month. The spinach in this bed however has germinated nicely over the last few weeks.

This bed has chard and beets which have shown no noticeable growth in over a month. The spinach in this bed however has germinated nicely over the last few weeks.

Spinach seedlings grown under a row cover in December and January.

Spinach seedlings grown under a row cover in December and January.

And speaking of overwintering spinach, yet another bed had a layer of teeny baby spinach plants sleeping under a blanket of fall leaves (and a canopy of plastic). No growth, but I’m pretty confident that they’ll overwinter for a spring harvest. Same deal with the turnips; no growth, but they look healthy under their leaf-mulch and hopefully will take off this spring.

This spinach seedling germinated in late fall. There are many more like it under this layer of leaves.

This spinach seedling germinated in late fall. There are many more like it under this layer of leaves.

Turnips waiting for spring under a bed of fall leaves (and a plastic row cover).

Turnips waiting for spring under a bed of fall leaves (and a plastic row cover).

I didn’t get a chance to check on the newly seeded carrots and parsnips which are under several inches of leaf-mulch and several more inches of snow.

raised beds in snow

The story of ‘looks-healthy-but-no-growth’ is repeated in the greenhouse. I have many (100?) seedlings that I was going to plant out in the garden which are frozen in time. Some of them were destined for beds that have row covers and I probably should go ahead and transplant them. (Confession: With the busyness of the holidays I didn’t get around to it.) I did bring one lettuce plant into the house which is beginning to grow as it thaws.

SAMSUNG\

SAMSUNG

 

So in summary, while things aren’t growing like I thought they would, we still have a few winter delights to nibble on and I’m optimistic that I’ll have several early crops in the spring.

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

 
 

Update: Hugelkultur on a Micro-Farm

Christmas is one week from today… but I’m still digging in dirt! Ever since the end of our CSA season I’ve been planning to double the size of our garden for 2013. The initial plan was to tackle this in the spring with a day full of volunteer help and free food! But then I learned about a new-to-me gardening method that requires a significant amount of fall preparation to be ready by spring – hugelkultur.

Hugelkultur is a German term that roughly translates to “mound culture”. The hugelkultur gardening method has been used in Eastern Europe for centuries and is essentially a sheet-composting method that involves burying woody debris (logs, branches, sticks) and other organic matter under a mound of earth to add nutrients to the soil and retain moisture. For more details on the definition, benefits and challenges of hugelkultur, hop over to this previous post.

If I had known earlier that I was going to want to implement hugelkultur principles into our expansion, I would have begun planning and implementing it back in October. Tackling this endeavor in November and December has provided its own set of challenges, but all the same, here’s an update on how things are going.

Hugelkultur Update

Recap

First a recap: I wanted to create 10 hugelkultur beds. Because we live in a suburban neighborhood, I felt it was important to partially bury the beds for the sake of appearance. The plan? Make them two or three feet deep, four feet wide and 12 feet long. That. Is. A. Lot. Of. Digging. I was already sooo tired of digging after creating our hotbeds that the thought of moving that many hundreds of cubic feet of earth one shovelful at a time made me want to faint! On top of that, I knew that time was of the essence since (at least in theory!) cold weather is on the way. So to avoid frozen earth and aching backs, I hired Luke Schemenauer and his bobcat to do the dirty digging work! [Luka (Luke) Schemenauer, 269-214-0837, luka@i2k.com]

Bring Wood!

Within a week of creating the pits, we had them all filled with old or rotting logs. The lumber came from our own property, including logs that had been lying around since we bought this house and wood from a dying maple tree we had to cut down a few years ago. We were also fortunate to develop a win-win situation with a number who has a brush pile that needed some clearing. We hauled off many logs and now he has that much less work! (Don’t worry – I asked first!).

This was an interim shot… they ended up more full than this.

How to Deal with Nitrogen Drawn-Down

Most of the wood we used is well-rotted, so it should retain moisture well and have a minimal incident of nitrogen-drawn down because it has already decomposed so much. (Because logs are carbon rich, they need a lot of nitrogen to decompose. Plants also need nitrogen and thus the log decomposition can ‘rob’ the plants of nitrogen they need.) There were three beds however that had somewhat newer wood (from the maple tree). From what I’ve read, nitrogen drawdown during the first year of planting can be an issue, but I’ve found very few people who actually experienced the dilemma. As a precaution, I did my best to add nitrogen-rich materials to these beds. This was one of the points where I wished I had developed my hugelkultur plans sooner – it’s hard to come by green, nitrogen-rich material at Christmas time!

The first bed received a modest helping of freshly cut grass clippings. (Yes, I mowed my Michigan lawn in December!) Despite having mowed about ½ an acre, this is all I got for my labor.

This wheelbarrow load of grass clippings came from mowing less than 1/3 of the lawn in December. I got about this much again after mowing the ‘Back 40? around the garden.

The second bed received all of the compost I could gather from this summer’s compost pile – around 9 cubic feet in all. I also continued to toss table vegetable scraps onto this bed right up until I covered it.

And the third bed got nothing. Not because the spirit of Scrooge came on me but because in the spring I’ll be planting beans in this bed. Since beans actually add nitrogen to the soil, I’m hoping it will be a sufficient defense against nitrogen-draw down.

All of these beds would have benefited from a layer of composted manure if time and my budget had allowed.

Add the Leaves!

With the beds full of logs and branches, I moved on to adding our fall leaves. I have to say I was a little hesitant about this since dead leaves are also carbon-rich and I feared they may contribute to nitrogen draw-down. But in the interest of adding other trace nutrients to the soil of my hugels, I took the leap. (Big thanks to my hubby for helping me with this!)

These beds are filled with rotting logs and branches, as well as a layer of fall leaves.

Hugelkultur beds that are partially buried. So far they’ve been filled with rotting logs and leaves.

To Water or Not?

My next challenge: Watering. The primary purpose of all this work is to develop raised beds which need little or no watering. And as I read online instructions for making hugelkultur beds, many people recommended ‘thoroughly wetting’ the logs at this point in the process. My challenge? It’s December. For a few hours a day, it’s warm enough to run a hose, but the freezing that happens to that hose after its use is a pain in the butt to deal with. Also it had rained during the week the logs had been in the pits (less than ½ an inch) and I wondered if that would be sufficient. I spent a morning researching and didn’t get any direct answers. One person commented on my question in the forum at www.permies.com that he thought the beds would probably retain more moisture from a good rain after being completed than from being hosed down in the midst of the process. With all of this in mind, I made the judgment call not to hose them down. *fingers crossed*

The logs had already been rained and snowed on several times, but with less than 1/2 an inch of precipitation.

Dirt Dilemma

Last but not least, we (hubby helped again!) worked on filling the holes back in with dirt. I knew it was going to be a major task to put that mountain of dirt back where it came from, but Ryan had an idea: We borrowed his father’s four-wheeler and used the snowplow to push the dirt back! In some cases, it worked really well. But then there was the awkwardness of figuring out how to fill the beds closest to the existing fence without driving over the beds on the outside. And then once all the small piles were gone, we realized that a snowplow is just not going to efficiently move a giant mound of dirt around.

Enter shovels. And a visit to the chiropractor. And then, well… I did something I hardly ever do. I gave up.

If I even see another shovel before spring, I may need therapy.

I owe you some ‘after’ pictures. Meanwhile, I thought I’d share a few shots of a little someone who came out to survey the work.

Marley came out to oversee our work.

Marley the Foreman.

I wonder if he approves?

Just before I gave up, I happened to look down a few lots and noticed that one of our neighbors has some manner of machinery with a big scoop on the front (a front loader?)!  I couldn’t say for sure, but I think there were angels ascending and descending on it… I promptly walked over to see if I could pay him to move some dirt, but no one was home. I’m planning to stop by again today and very much hope that he’ll be able to help us before (if?) the snow comes. If we haven’t been able to move the dirt before then, at spring time we’ll mound some up over the beds (six inches), add a layer of compost (six inches) and advertise the rest on Craigslist as free (come and get it!) fill dirt.

As it stands now, 8 hugels are level with the ground and filled with logs, leaves and dirt. Two more are dirt-less but otherwise level. And then there’s a would-be hugel pit that isn’t quite in the right spot so I plan to fill it in. So other than Mt. Dirtmore towering in the tree line, I think things look acceptable enough for the neighbors to tolerate through the winter. (As I’ve mentioned before, we want to be good neighbors!) Who knows, if the weather stays this mild, maybe I’ll eventually pick up a shovel again and chip away at that mountain bit by bit… maybe.

 
 

Black Friday Black Gold


I hope you all had a fabulous Thanksgiving holiday! We enjoyed ours and know that we have much to be thankful for.

Many of you probably also ‘celebrated’ Black Friday by standing in unbelievably long lines early in the cold morning to get great deals on Christmas gifts. Although I did do some shopping online, I didn’t dare venture out into the mob of wild shoppers. Instead of heading toward the retail district, we headed the other direction into the country to take advantage of an awesome (FREE!) deal: Horse manure! That’s right – on Black Friday we went out to a local farm and picked up some ‘black gold.’

To be honest, we didn’t really get ‘black gold.’ Black Gold is a term used to describe compost because of its extreme value in creating healthy gardens. Composted (aged) manure contains lots of nutrients and is a great addition to any garden! This manure is far from composted but it will bring value to our garden by warming our hotbeds as it decomposes. And as the gardening season progresses next spring and summer, it will indeed become ‘black gold.’ Even if this hotbed experiment doesn’t work, I’m excited that in the spring I’ll have raised beds that are essentially 3 feet deep and full of very rich soil!

My original plan for winter growing was to convert six of our4’ (wide) x 12’ (long) x 1’ (deep) raised beds into hotbeds. The conversion process involves removing the 12 inches of garden soil, digging a pit in the bottom of the bed that is 1.5 to 2 feet deep, filling the pit with manure (horse and goat so far) and hay/leaves/grass clippings, adding 6 inches of soil back on top and then topping the bed with a plastic row cover on PVC hoops. Here’s a quick update on the process.

Bed #1 was converted to a hotbed a month or longer now. It has peas and lettuce (transplanted from the greenhouse last week) growing in it and they’re coming along beautifully!

Hotbed raised garden bed with plastic row cover

Hotbed #1 with peas and lettuce growing in it

Hotbed #1 with peas and lettuce growing in it. At the time I took this picture it was 85* inside the row cover and about 35* outside.

Peas growing in Hotbed #1.

Peas growing in Hotbed #1.

Lettuce seedling in Hotbed #1

Lettuce seedling in Hotbed #1

Bed #2 was converted to a hotbed last week except that it still needs a plastic row cover. I’m hoping to cut plastic for this today (I have a roll of plastic in the garage… somewhere…). The bed currently has kale growing the middle; that portion of the bed has not been converted because I transferred the kale there this fall from other parts of the garden. The hotbed ends are ready for cabbage and cauliflower transplants. The cabbage and cauliflower seedlings are in the greenhouse right now and should be ready within a week to be transplanted.

Kale in a raised hotbed

Kale is growing in the center portion of this bed. The ends have been converted for hotbeds (there’s horse manure underneath). All we need now is a row cover!

Bed #3 was converted to a hotbed this past weekend. All it needs is a plastic row cover. Unfortunately I don’t think the plastic I have in the garage will be large enough for more than one cover so I need to buy more ASAP. (It currently has a “roof” of plastic sheeting that isn’t quite big enough to cover the whole thing.) The middle of the bed is occupied by carrots that I transplanted from another bed. (Yes, I transplanted carrots. I’ve done it before and they’ll be fine.) Next week the ends of the bed will be receiving leeks which are currently in the greenhouse.

Remember that these beds start with 10-12 inches of garden soil in them but I’m only returning 6 inches of soil back. That’s because I discovered last month that the manure can heat 6 inches of soil but 12 inches is too much. So where do the other six inches go? I’ve been topping off other beds in the garden that have lost soil or compacted slightly. In fact as I went to fill this bed back in, I was running low on garden soil and decided to add compost from our summer compost pile. It’s hard to believe that the rich, dark dirt I shoveled in was carrot peels, onion tops and grass clippings just a couple of months ago.

Hotbed #3 with partial plastic row cover

This is hotbed #3. Soon it will have a row cover that also covers the ends.

Transplanted carrots inside a hotbed

These are the carrots I transplanted last weekend. They look pretty sad right now, but they’ll perk up soon. :)

Bed #4 currently has turnips growing in one third of it (on the end). I have to say that they are holding on just fine but are showing no progress in their growth. I left them undisturbed while I dug up the remaining 2/3 of the bed. Currently there’s a 2 foot hole there waiting for manure. There wasn’t enough horse manure to fill all the beds so I’m hoping to get enough goat manure this week to fill at least this bed. I’ll also need to get plastic for a row cover. Once its complete, I’ll be transplanting lettuce and broccoli into it from the greenhouse.

Hotbed #4 with turnips and lettuce seedlings

This is hotbed #4. There are currently turnip and lettuce seedlings growing here. I’ll be converted the other side into a hotbed this week.

Bed #5 is all tucked in for the winter. Because it was around 70% full of existing, frost-tolerant plants (chard, beets, radishes) I decided not to convert it to a hotbed. Instead I planted spinach in the remaining 30% of the bed and gave it a row cover. So far the established plants look great in there but the spinach is taking its sweet time germinating. It will be interesting to see how this bed fares during the winter compared to its hotbed counterparts.

Raised bed with winter row cover

This bed already had many frost-tolerant plants growing in it so I decided not to convert it to a hotbed. Instead, I planted some spinach in the remaining space (which doesn’t seem to be germinating). We’ll see how this bed fares through the winter without any manure beneath it.

Radishes, Beets and Chard

Radishes, Beets and Chard

Bed #6 had carrots still growing in it until this weekend when I transplanted them into Bed #3. Why did I transplant them? For several reasons. One is that I needed to move some plants around to stage the garden for my new crop rotation plan. (What I grow in each bed this winter will impact what I can grow there this coming spring and summer.) Also, the carrots were spread throughout the entire bed (carrots that were too small to harvest during our CSA season but have grown since then). I decided to put them all in one concentrated place to make better use of the bed. At any rate, this bed still needs a lot of work. I need to remove all of the garden soil, dig the 2 foot pit (before the ground freezes!) and then fill it up with compost. I’m starting to think I won’t have enough manure to fill both this bed and bed #4, so I’m going to experiment by using non-manure compost here. I’ll be using table scraps, lots of leaves, and if I can manage to mow the lawn one last time before sticking snow, grass clippings. Once this bed is converted, it will be home to lettuce (in the greenhouse). I was also hoping to direct seed radishes into this bed… but I thought I would be doing that several weeks ago. We’ll see if the bed gets/stays warm enough for the seeds to germinate.

Raised Bed

This raised bed has a long way to go to become a hotbed! It will feature plant-based compost instead of manure.

Other garden areas are mostly being ‘winterized’. I’m halfway through the process of mulching the Fenceline Garden with leaves. Three of the beds in the Main Garden have received seeds that will overwinter and grow in the spring. Crops include scallions (no growth seen), parsnips (growth observed), carrots (germination observed) and asparagus (no growth seen). These beds will be mulched with shredded leaves this week. Dormant beds will be mulched with either leaves (likely un-shredded because of time constraints) or maple wood chips. And last but not least, one of the small beds at the front of the Main Garden was supposed to overwinter spinach, but the seedlings are coming along so well that I think we’ll be eating from it this winter instead of harvesting from it in the spring! That will mess up my crop rotation a little bit, but my excitement over hopefully having fresh spinach in January is overshadowing that conundrum for now.

Raised garden bed with winter row cover

This garden bed is half as wide as the others and is NOT a hotbed (no manure below). Spinach is growing inside… we’ll see how long it lasts!

Spinach seedlings in raisede bed under row cover

Spinach Seedling

Spinach Seedling

So that’s what’s happening around here regarding winter growing. We have some exciting developments happening regarding expansion of the garden for next season, and I can’t wait to share that with you next week. Stay tuned!

 
 

October 2012 Update

As much as I really dislike being cold I have managed to drag myself outside several days and accomplish some goals. (And thankfully we’ve also had a few sunny days in the midst of all this rain!) Here’s a quick update on what’s happening at Arcadia Farms this October.  [Read More]
 
 

Meet the Winter Team

Last week I shared in this post that I’m planning to grow vegetables this winter. For those of you who are following and would like to try to do the same, I thought I’d share just exactly what we’re planting.  [Read More]
 
 

Baby, it's (almost) cold outside!

It’s fall. Big time. Temperatures are dropping along with brown and orange leaves. The tomato plants are bending beneath the weight of green fruit hoping for enough time. (I’ll be picking them before we get frost.) The zucchini, cucumbers and beans are all distant memories. And all I can think about is sowing seeds. Yes, that’s right, sowing seeds. Today I planted seeds in the main garden and before the weekend is over, I’ll have planted many more. Why? Because I’m experimenting with four-season growing!  [Read More]
 
 
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