Worms, Baby! Another Friend Of The Self Sufficient Homestead Garden

Hey Y’all. This is a spontaneous post about the value of worms in your garden. The short version is; you want them. The more the better. Charles Darwin called them, “The soldiers of the soil”. Worms break down organic material and make it extremely nutrient rich. I have started putting worms in my self watering containers and wicking beds. And wow, what a job they’re doing.  I went down to the garden to unload some rabbit manure today and noticed lots of weeds in the wicking beds. My plan was to work on a book after cleaning the rabbit barn, but I got sidetracked by all the worms I was finding. Every time I pulled a weed,there were worms attached to the roots. I ended up weeding all seven wicking beds.

Back in the spring, I put a handful of red wiggler compost worms in 5 of the 7 beds and in a couple self watering container to see how they would do. I periodically feed the worms with manure and straw from the rabbit barn. Well…just watch this video (ignore the quality. I don’t do video much}

 

What’s been your experience with worms in the garden? Do you have your own worm beds? We’d love to hear about your experiences, or to hear your questions. After all, we’re all in this together.

Rabbits: Self Sufficiency’s Secret Weapon

Siblings awaiting breakfast

Siblings awaiting breakfast

As I write this little essay, backyard chickens are all the rage.  And with good reason, too. They are wonderful creatures who provide their owners with an abundance of eggs and meat, along with hours of entertainment. Their bedding and manure, are outstanding components in the compost pile. We have around three dozen of them (with more coming in the spring), so my biases are out there in plain sight.

All this fuss about birds, though, makes it easy to forget about what may be the most valuable livestock to anyone seeking a simple, sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle; the rabbit.

Rabbits are quieter than chickens; a lot quieter. On the whole, they are easier to handle. While they do shed, your coop, yard, or pasture won’t look like killing fields the way they do when chickens are molting.

Rabbits are cleaner than chickens and cleaning up after them is way easier. Chickens make a terrible mess in their sleeping/nesting areas, while bunnies by and large keep their bodily waste away from where they like to sleep and hang out.  Their waste is also in nice neat piles of easily scooped up,  compact, round pellets rather than the runny, splatted mess that chickens leave in their wake.

One of our Does, Cinder, not feeling photogenic

One of our Does, Cinders, not feeling photogenic

Rabbit manure is arguably the best fertilizer you can add to your garden beds. Unlike chicken manure, rabbit guano can be used without composting and the bunnies provide copious quantities of it.

If you do decide to compost it (we do both), you will find that it does so easily and quickly. The manure is also a fantastic addition to worm beds.  Red wiggler worms positively adore rabbit manure, especially if it has a little bedding straw in it, and will turn it into the absolutely finest quality garden additive you can get anywhere.

Rabbit meat is tasty, mild, and highly nutritious. In parts of America, that benefit has been largely lost, as many urban and suburban dwellers have grown to see rabbits as cute little pets to pamper and snuggle with; but most of the world, and still large sections of this country consider rabbits and a food source. And let’s not forget that they are at the top of the menu for every predatory creature in nature, from birds of prey, to foxes, coyotes, wolves, weasels, bobcats, mountain lions, and more, to the family dog and cat, who will always have one eye fixed on Bugs as a potential meal.

I’m not going to take time defending rabbit as a food source, because all history demonstrates it to be so, and I’m not going to argue about it. We are omnivores and our self-sufficiency plan includes a rabbit meat. If you only see rabbits as pets, that’s fine by me. They are still a great benefit to you for the manure alone.

For those who process their own meat, rabbits are the easiest of all livestock to prepare for the freezer. It is much easier and faster than processing chickens.

Rabbits breed prolifically, so they can provide a continuous supply of protein and manure. For those so inclined, rabbit fur is still a great source for warm clothing and the hides can be good, basic leather.

New Rangers for 2015 under construction

New Rangers for 2015 under construction

Rabbits don’t require a great deal of space. Many people raise them totally in cages. We prefer to raise them on the ground when possible, though we do have cages in our barn for times when it’s necessary.

Older Rabbit Rangers In Pasture

Older Rabbit Rangers In Pasture

My wife has designed a moveable rabbit crate that serves the same function as a chicken tractor. We call them, Rabbit Rangers. Each Ranger has a nesting porch in the back, where the rabbits can get up out of mud and frost to sleep, nest and give birth. There is a large open area in the middle where the bunnies can hop about or graze to their heart’s content. The Rangers are moved daily so the buns can have fresh grass. Some manure is left behind, of course, which aids in fertilizing the pasture (or yard). The grass grows back quickly and much more lush, improving the quality of the field.

If a winter is particularly severe, we will move the rabbits, especially mothers with babies, to the cages in the barn where they can avoid the worst of the elements, but by March, they are back out on pasture. We think rabbits should be on the ground, hopping, eating, digging and doing what rabbits like to do.  The purpose of the Rangers is to allow that, while providing them shelter from both the weather and from predators.

Main Breeding Buck, James, In Ranger

Main Breeding Buck, James, In Ranger

If you are interested in raising Rabbits as part of your homestead, feel free to ask us anything you like. I would also recommend any of the Backyard Rabbit forums on Facebook.

Do you raise rabbits? Are you considering it? Tell us all about it. We’d love to hear from you. Got questions? Send them our way.  Remember, we’re in this together.

Project Self Sufficiency: Why Planning Is Spontaneity’s Best Friend

calendarI would like to say I am a spontaneous person. I’d like to, but I can’t. I am, however, impulsive. They sound similar, but impulsiveness is much more expensive, and far less fun. Trust me, I know these things.

Spontaneity is creative, fun, and surprising. Impulsiveness is chaotic, confusing and demanding. Let me give a quick example of each.

A spontaneous farmer gets his work done ahead of schedule and says, ‘Dang, I think I’ll take my wife to the movies.’  An impulsive farmer looks through a seed catalogue, sees a bunch of new or cool varieties and buys them up to add to his usual products without giving thought to the financial, time or space costs, giving himself more work and stress as a result.

The key to opening up opportunity for the former and inhibiting the latter is, planning. December is my planning month. (Note: planning does not come natural to me. It is way to disciplined for my random, extemporaneous mind, but it is a skill I’ve cultivated at great cost over the years). I sit down with my calendar, my budget, my seed catalogs and business plan and work out something that makes sense.

By knowing what I have room for, time for and money for, I can minimize stress and optimize production. I will always ask Brittan’s input, to make sure I’m growing and raising things we will actually use or sell, because my tendency is to grow things that are fun.  For example, we almost never eat eggplant, but I think they are beautiful plants with gorgeous flowers and fruit. They are also challenging for me to grow. Last year, I didn’t ask her about them and planted way too many. Actually, two would have been too many, but I digress.  I wasted hours and hours nursing a couple dozen eggplants only to have 90 percent of them go to the chickens or compost heap (same thing, really).  This year, I will plant a maximum of two, because she reminded me of my impulsiveness last year, so I could work it into my plan.

I use a calendar to write down a planting schedule to ensure I get everything out at the right times. The plan cues me when it’s time to get seed trays started in the greenhouse and when it’s time to feed my plants.

Planning in advance reminds me when to schedule the arrival of new chicks or ducklings. I know when I’m going to buy feeder calves or put my male goats in with the does for breeding.

One of my favorite tools is a planting chart provided free from the University of Georgia Ag Department. I found it several years ago as a .pdf online. While not exhaustive, it gives great guidance on when to plant specific crops for both the spring and fall seasons. I love it. Many States have similar guides. I encourage you to do a search for your area. If you can’t find one, contact your County extension office and see what they have.

As for calendars, this time of year they are on sale EVERYWHERE. Or you can print out a blank one from an online template which is my normal plan. This year, though, I’m going to buy a notebook style like a Franklin Planner so I can keep more detailed notes. Wait, did I just use the word, detail….

Planning is an evolving process, but I encourage you to try it. It will save you many tears and sleepless nights.

Now it’s your turn. How do you plan your homesteading/farming year? When do you get started? Please share, we’d all love to learn from you.  Also, send us any questions you have. We’re in this together.

 

Project Self Sufficiency – Day 3 – Learning From Mistakes And Pleasant Surprises

A few of the Grow Bags I used last summer.

A few of the Grow Bags I used last summer.

You can watch every YouTube video, and read everything ever written on Organic Gardening, Self Sufficiency and Farming, but the only way to really learn is to get your hands dirty and make mistakes.

My wife and I have been doing this for several years now, yet last year, I made some of the biggest, costliest mistakes of my homesteading life. Yesterday’s work brought it all back to me in living color. Let me ‘splain.

I love container gardening. I believe it’s the most water, earth and nutrient efficient way to grow. I do some raised beds, but I love my soil, hydroponic and aquaponic containers best.  Nearer spring, I’ll go into more detail about this.

Last year, I decided to try plastic, reusable grow bags rather than buckets, in order to save money. I have hundreds of three and 5 gallon bags. The experiment was a dismal failure. Yesterday’s clean up showed me exactly why. It turns out the problem was not the bags, but the soil mix.

I bought several truck loads of Organic Planting Mix from a local landscape supply company. This is a great base for garden beds and containers, and is full of organic material, but it always needs amended, which can be very time consuming. The ‘garden expert’ where I bought me mix explained that I didn’t need to amend it all, just in the holes where I was planting my starter plants and seeds. She assured me that’s what she does every year.

I took her advice and filled about 60 bags with the mix and amended the top three or 4 inches with good compost, peat and perlite. My tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplant that I put in them got off to a fantastic start, then just stopped growing. I got a very poor harvest off of them and was frustrated.

In July, when I began my late summer and fall plantings, I changed my method and trusted my instincts by amending the entire contents of the containers.  I had beautiful fall tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and cilantro.

Worms are a gardener's best friend

Worms are a gardener’s best friend

As I began pulling the plants out of the bags and emptying the mix into the compost pile, the full picture of my errors became clear. The plants had virtually no root system below the top layer I had amended. The tiny root balls just popped out of the bags, which was a complete contrast to the peppers and tomatoes I had pulled up from the fall garden. Those properly amended containers had vast, healthy root balls that filled the buckets and bags and were a pain in the tootie to get out.

Below the roots, the soil was very compacted and sticky because of all the clay.  There was simple no way for the plants to really send down roots and thrive. Lesson learned.  Again, more in future. I will take photos and make a video showing how to make a really good bucket container.

Look what I found. The Parsley that Lived.

Look what I found. The Parsley that Lived.

Two very pleasant surprises, softened the blow of remembering badly I screwed up.  The first, was finding worms in some of my containers. I am always excited to see them, because their presence shows there is plenty of organic material in my garden. The worms will feed on it and convert the material into nutrient rich waste that the plants will feed off of. When I dumped them into the compost bed, I’m providing the worms a lifetime buffet and they in turn multiply and keep my compost rich and nutritious for my plants.

The second surprise gave me opportunity to do another experiment. I do love to play. Anyway, as I was cleaning up around my herbs, I saw a potted curly parsley plant someone had given me, that never got transplanted. Our recent warm spell had brought it back to life. There were two or three fresh leaves growing. so rather than throw it out, I cleaned the soil and peat off the roots, trimmed off the excess ones and dead leaves, then transplanted it into my floating hydroponic raft. It may or may not prosper, but it will be fun to see what happens. I don’t even like parsley, but I love to grow things!

That’s about it for today. I’ve got to shorten these updates, or I won’t get any other work done.

Parsley all trimmed up and transferred to the Hydroponics system

Parsley all trimmed up and transferred to the Hydroponics system

BTW,  I’m so excited to have all of you new readers and followers. It makes my day to see your likes and follows. Please, though, don’t just lurk. Join the fun. Tell us your stories. Ask questions. Heck, tell me how all my mistakes make you feel better about yourselves. And…thank you for reading.

 

Project Self Sufficiency – Day 2

Buckets in dire need of some attention

Buckets in dire need of some attention

Yesterday was a gorgeous day, but I didn’t do a great deal in the garden. Mostly, I went to the library to work on a book I’m writing. When I got home, I saw some of our rabbits had escaped from their rabbit rangers (more about that in a future episode) and were running around the pasture. So, I spent the next hour chasing down bunnies. Oh, the glamorous life of a small farmer!

While I didn’t work long on the garden, I am very happy with what I accomplished. I managed to pull the plants out of all 23 bucket containers, clean off the roots and get the buckets into the greenhouse, where in 1 month I will plant them with sugar snap peas. I also emptied a few of the grow bags into compost heap.

The buckets were planted with peppers, tomatoes and eggplant. The roots spread through the whole container and fight hard to stay there. Its a very good bicep and triceps workout; and you don’t even need to go to the gym.

Ready for planting in January

Ready for planting in January

It’s always good for the body AND soul to work up a sweat. When you can do that working outside in December, well, it’s just a darned good day!

A good sweat. Sorry for wearing an Oklahoma shirt in public :-)

A good sweat. Sorry for wearing an Oklahoma shirt in public🙂

 

Why Farmers Market Prices Are Sometimes Higher Than Supermarkets. Hint: They’re Worth It!

Farmers Market

Farmers Market

The other day, I was reading an online discussion about the Farmers Market produce prices and Supermarket Prices. The discussion was both enlightening and discouraging. Let me explain.

The thread began with a consumer saying he was ‘done’ with shopping at his farmers market, because prices were too high; in some cases twice as expensive at the grocery store.  He said that he wants to support local, but not at any price.

On the whole, the responders were supportive and equally frustrated that the prices of everything from tomatoes to eggs to chickens was too much of a budget buster to continue to support their local farmers markets. A few hardy souls defended the markets, but to be honest their arguments were more subjective and heartfelt than objective and persuasive. So, I’d like to address this important issue as dispassionately as possible (which could be difficult because I am a ‘local’ small farmer).

First, there are farmers markets that are very pricey and are aimed at a target market that doesn’t really include the average family trying to manage Dave Ramsey’s ‘baby steps’.  There are also many misconceptions about ‘cheap food’ that are costing us dearly.  I will address both those issues in coming weeks.  For now, though, I will speak to subject at hand.

I loved the discussion comments about wanting to support local producers. It means a great deal that so many Americans see the big picture and want to be a part of a community based economy.  Produce sold at these markets, is however, about much more than supporting local. It’s about quality, flavor and nutrition.

The produce at the Saturday (usually) Market, costs more to produce.  For example, the seeds themselves are more expensive. This is partly because the mega farms can buy in larger quantities and get price breaks. It’s also related to the varieties grown. The seeds of many heirloom and open pollinated vegetable and fruit varieties are much more expensive than the ‘commercial’ varieties.

It is much more labor intensive for the small Market Farmer. Many of them are working alone, or with close family members, to amend soil, make compost, hand water and feed, etc. instead of using big machines to spit out large quantities of chemical fertilizers and hazardous insecticides.

It takes longer to get the local, organic produce to market, so fewer plants can be grown in the same space. Let me give you a quick example. Local, organic tomatoes are ripened on the vine, which takes weeks longer than picking them green, sticking them in the back of a truck and ripening them with gas canisters.  Therefore, it’s harder to replace plants for a second, or different, crop.

And let’s not forget that there are no Govt. subsidies for the Market Gardener.  That makes a huge difference in the cost of production and sale.

The Produce you buy on Saturdays at the Market costs more because it’s worth more.  It’s worth more in terms of nutrition, long term health, and taste.

No one thinks all shoes, tires,  or pickup trucks are created equal; but people continue to think that an egg is an egg and a tomato is a tomato. It baffles me, especially in light of all the information that is available out there.

It is well known that free range eggs are more than twice as good for you than are chicken house eggs.  Free range eggs are high in healthy Omega 3 fatty acids from the chickens eating grass and spending their days out in the fresh air and sunshine. Chicken house eggs are loaded with artery clogging omega 6 fatty acids from living on a grain only diet and living a sedentary life. Do you think something good for you should cost the same as something bad for you?  How much is your health worth.

Tomatoes and other fresh fruits and vegetables grown by local, organic and beyond organic farmers, are loaded with vitamins and minerals that are often missing from the supermarket varieties. And the Saturday Market ones are missing the toxic chemicals the supermarket ones are often swimming in.

Take carrots, potatoes and other root vegetables as an example. In a commercial environment, those vegetables are regularly bathed in a virtual chemical soup bath of toxins. They sit in it, soak it up and pass it on to you at low, low, prices.  Your, Saturday market varieties have likely been grown in well composted, nutrient rich soils and fed only natural fertilizers from things like seaweed. The insecticides, if used at all,  come from things like ivory dish soap, garlic juice, and water.  Do you think those more safely grown might be worth more than the chemical soup kind?

Sometimes what you save on the front end by paying less at the checkout, you pay for down the road in health care.  Produce may look alike, but they are not all the same.

The Farmers Market produce also tastes better.  I can’t even begin to recount the number of people who have remarked on the superior flavor of our produce, eggs and  chicken, as compared to what they get at the store.  What is flavor worth? Only you can decide what it’s worth to you.

There you have it. Farmers Market produce costs more because it’s worth more, just like a Coach handbag is worth more than the knock off at Wal Mart or a BMW is worth more than a Ford. The big difference is that with handbag and car analogies is that cheaper purses and automobiles are not putting your family’s health at risk.

Coming Soon: Part 2, Why Some Farmers Are Driving Consumers Away From Farmers Markets