Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Planning the spring garden

Yes, I know it's still December, but this winter will be my time to plan, build, and prepare for Spring.

Much of our new land is cross-fenced, which was one of the main draws of this property. Of the six acres, there's about two fenced acres of pasture on one side, two fenced acres attached to the barn, a smaller 100-foot section, and a 3/4-acre plot we'll use for the garden. I'll divide that 3/4-acre plot into four sections, each rotated counter-clockwise every year.

Originally, we were going to make a path around the fenced parts, but that would a) reduce the growing area and b) be way way more expensive. So we decided, mostly for money's sake, to just split the plot into four sections, but only really fence in the section containing the hog. That section will be done with temporary electric fencing that will be moved every year. The way it's set up, I'll only have to move one side during the rotation each year.

I'll also electrify the entire area to keep out the deer, raccoons, foxes, elephants, dinosaurs, and whatever else tries to get in. I'm considering this a learning period on what works best (as with everything), so I plan to adapt once we actually get the pigs.

I also plan to make a hog shelter that is low and wide, probably around 8 feet long, 4 feet deep and 4 feet tall. I'll put wheels on one side so I can tip it up on its wheeled side to roll it (i.e. pull it with my truck) through the gates to the new section each year.
So basically, I will make two of the sections garden, one a cover crop, and the other to house a few pigs. Let me explain why I'm going through all of this trouble for a garden.

First off, rotating crops is extremely important to a garden that uses no pesticides or chemicals. It allows a natural order of insects to thrive, nutrients to replenish, and the soil to heal itself periodically.

The cover crop is important because it adds alternate nutrients to the soil (grain is especially good for this) and it can be used for either grazing animal feed or mulch when its cut down. Since the order of rotation will allow the pig pen to always follow the cover crop, the hogs will always make sure to uproot the grain plants so they won't be present in the garden the following year. In turn, the garden sections will always follow the hogs, so the ground will be freshly tilled with plenty of natural fertilizer.

Which brings us to the hogs themselves. The reason I'll introduce hogs in the mix is because they are natural ground tillers. They forage under the soil for roots, bugs, and even the dirt itself for their balanced diet. Plus, their manure will help create some amazing soil for the garden which will follow next in the rotation.

Two of the sections will be dedicated to growing fruits and vegetables, so we'll certainly have enough to eat and store each year. The fruits and veges that require more time to grow (such as asparagus, rhubarb, etc) will have its own garden section just outside of this area. Eventually, I'd like to get into the crop-selling business, but right now, I'm only concentrating on food for the family. A goal is to one day never buy from a grocery store again.

So there you have it. Rotating the sections is a natural way to make sure the soil is healthy, the pigs are happy, and my family is getting the best organically grown food possible.

New chicken coop and more rabbits

So after the last month or so of having my chickens eaten one by one by a predator, I finally just ditched work for a few hours (ahaha, just kidding, co-workers who may be reading this!) and built a chicken coop.

Everything I used was scrap wood I had lying around, except for 3 large hinges I had to buy at the local hardware store. As is usual with my projects, I didn't really plan it out beyond what was in my head, and it evolved as I was putting it together. One day I really need to draw out plans first, but I kinda enjoy the challenge of impromptu building projects, especially when it's just a chicken coop built from scrap wood.

So I put together the 10x10 dog kennel we had from our old house and built a 2x2x8 foot chicken coop inside. There was an old nest box in the barn that's 6 feet long, so I wanted to make sure I could fit that in there with a bit of room to spare. On the bottom, I made sure the braces for the stand could double as roosts, so I used deck spindles left over from a deck project at the old house. The stand holds the coop part about 2 feet off the ground, so they can play/roost underneath. The plywood came from the tops of my rabbit hutches (that I took off once the hutches were placed into the barn), and most of the other wood is from a deck project, so it's treated.

The whole front of the coop opens up for egg access (eventually), but I decided to make it open downward, so the door could double as a ladder for the chickens to climb into the coop. I may eventually remake the roof because it's kinda flimsy, but there's a tarp over the entire kennel now, so it's not an immediate problem.

Now my seven remaining chickens seem pretty happy and I haven't lost one in the week since I built it (knock on wood!). The bunnies in the picture are still very young, so I put them in the coop to protect them. They'll eventually make their way to the barn where the rest of the rabbits are.

This last weekend we also took a drive down to the Collinsville Flea Market, which I always enjoy. We were going to look at goose prices and probably buy a feeder pig or two if they had any, but nope! The only pigs they had were baby potbellies, and those poor things are just bred for pets these days. We're looking for Yorkshires or Berkshires. Oh well, we may just wait for the spring since not much is available in the winter (even though it's been warm). After all, I haven't even built their shelter yet! I tend to get a little ahead of myself.

We also aimed to get some more rabbits, since I only had one female and two males left when the dogs decided rabbits taste yummy last month. That's also the time when they figured out how to nudge open the rabbit cages... So we left the flea market with three female rabbits: two babies and one adult. Not really worth the hour drive in my old truck, but I was happy we got something. I bred the adult as soon as we got home, so hopefully we get some babies in a month or so.

Other that that, I finally decided on how I'm going to fence the garden. I think I'll put that into another post though. SO MANY PROJECTS! Oh, and someone remind me to tell the story of when I got attacked by a hawk in the barn.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Chicken update and nest box contest

As my "baby chicks" are growing up faster each day, I find the winter projects I had planned for their coop to be piling up all around me. We had some major weasel attacks which brought my original 26 down to only 9 (at the rate of about 1-2 deaths a night for the last few weeks), but I'm determined to save these survivors and let them see the beauty of spring.

So the coop side of the barn is being sealed up with chicken wire, but in the meantime, I had to put the 9 survivors in rabbit cages. They seem to be ok with it for now, but it's a temporary solution. I want them to get back out there and eat bugs and weeds before they start laying eggs in about 2 months.

Speaking of which, I saw this great contest today for a chance to win free nest boxes. They're made by the husband of Georgia Farm Woman, who writes a wonderful blog that I follow religiously (and is linked on my right sidebar there). I'm entering myself in that contest because I can't see a better way to reward my hens than with some shiny new nest boxes.

Wish me luck!