Late February Homestead Update

Well, it certainly hasn’t felt like February for the past couple of days: we’ve been blessed with copious sunshine and spring-like temperatures after a week or so of rain and cold. I’m certainly thankful that the ice and snow storms passed us pretty much completely, but cold rain, drizzle, and overcast skies for a solid week weren’t particularly pleasant, either.

With both kinds of weather, however, we’ve been busy on the homestead taking care of pre-spring tasks, as well as maintaining what we’ve already had throughout the winter. I’m taking advantage of what little bursts of energy I have left for garden tasks before the arrival of New Baby Homesteader, as well as gorgeous days like today, to take care of outdoor stuff and shoot a few photos and videos in the sun!

Today, I bring you pictures of what we’ve been up to, indoors and out, as well as that quality chicken content you so enjoy. Off we go!

The Moon Garden

For the past two years in doing the moon garden, I’ve had flimsy trellises made of everything from extra branches from the giant holly bush we cut down, to cheap wooden trellises from the hardware store, to bits and pieces of those cheap trellises, all tied together with garden twine. No more, I said!

Now that I know that just a few moonflower seedlings can cover quite a bit of trellising (as well as weigh anything flimsy down to the point of breaking), I knew that I wanted something sturdier and long-lasting to make the moonflower wall I so dreamed of. So, this past weekend, we built a u-shaped fence/trellis in much the same way (and with the same materials) as we did the chicken coop: short t-posts and galvanized wire fence fabric.

This trellis/wall has the added benefit of keeping the chickens at bay (at least until they go all the way around, at which point I can shoo them out), since they’ve taken to scratching up the bare ground and mulch here for dust bathing during “chicken recess.” More on chicken recess later. I am super happy with how this looks so far, and look forward to seeing some moonflowers climb all over it!

Berry Bramble Trellising

We also got around to some trellising for our blackberry bramble patch. While the brambles will do just fine spreading out all over the danged lawn, it’s not exactly my favorite task to go searching for berries in tall grass, or to accidentally step on brambles, or have to continuously pull up a creeper or two that’s decided to re-bury itself so that both ends are in the ground.

Last year, I did some flimsy trellising for the berries, which worked for the small plants we had…for about two months. The very hardy new growth from last year was having none of it, and quickly outgrew my wood-and-garden-twine trellising to where it sprawled nearly into the easement a couple of yards (!) away from our planned bramble patch. Solution? More and bigger metal t-posts, and fencing wire!

We intend to add another row likely after this year to keep the creepers off the ground and the berries easier to pick, but for now, I’m quite pleased with how much better this setup holds these much hardier blackberry brambles.

Winter Plants

Well, our winter plants are doing, but not growing nearly as much as last year, for multiple reasons that I can guess at. Firstly, we planted them in beds that were used for summer plants, which is not the best thing – one should, ideally, give beds at least a season to rest and recover before using them again, but we were ambitious and impatient and young and stupid. Don’t be like past us.

Secondly, the slugs were brutal at the beginning of the cold season, and got to munch on our kale and collards long before we did. Thirdly, it’s been a wet winter, and as I’ve mentioned before, the wet summer weather, combined with poor plant growth and harvests in our beds, made for some nasty flooding on the edges of our beds. This meant that about a third of what was planted (mostly collards, alas!) never actually sprouted.

Our few precious collards, and the kale that didn’t get eaten by slugs.

Thankfully, our mustard greens were not tasty treats for slugs, and we did (and still do) get a decent amount of them to eat, even this late in the winter season. They also don’t seem to mind the flooding nearly as much.

We’ve also got a few carrots and parsnips coming in for the spring, but I think I’ll try planting those for fall crops sometime this summer and see if I have more success, as we’ve really only gotten two or three to actually come up, alas.

Man, I miss winter parsnips.

Finally, we’re still get a few black radishes, although I think the best and biggest ones were harvested in December and January. (Didn’t help that the chickens discovered the beds and looooove to scratch the greens!) Will definitely be messing with those again next year – they’re big, tasty, spicy, and freeze-hardy.

Sheet Mulching

I finally got around to sheet mulching spring/summer beds this year, huzzah! Well, full disclosure: I sheet mulched one bed, and am attempting a tarp-kill of weeds and grass in another bed up front. A lot of this abbreviated work stems from being progressively more and more pregnant and less able to do the hard labor I’m used to at this time. So, no giant piles of mulch to trek across the property, and no digging or tilling (which isn’t great for the garden, anyway), but it does mean I finally get around to trying the easier, generally more garden-friendly route of sheet mulching over grass and weeds in small doses.

So, this bed is next to our asparagus bed, and we intend to get some rhubarb and transfer some of our strawberry plants here once it’s viable in several weeks. (Or, if it’s not quite viable in time, we’ll just make a raised bed out of it for now.) Thank goodness for our copious compost piles for providing the much-needed bottom layer to this bed – yay, two years of scraps, paper, and chicken poop!

And here we have an even less labor-intensive way to create a new garden bed: the tarp method of smothering weeds. I mowed the grass down to the dirt, and covered it with a large tarp weighed down by various heavy bits (in my case, extra roofing material, wood blocks, and stones from the circle garden we’re going to dismantle, anyway). If you do it this way, make sure you water the ground underneath before putting the tarp on (our ground was pretty good and damp underneath some mulch from last year).

Some people also swear by clear plastic, while others use black plastic tarp. I just used what we had in our crawlspace. Here’s hoping we have some viable dirt for planting pollinator plants by May!

Chickens, Pine Bedding, and Chicken Tractor

So, chicken chonks.

Once you get past the ridiculousness of chickens and their various noises, look down and you’ll notice the dirt in their run. I mentioned last time that I attempted pouring pine bedding into their coop to prevent the disgusting mud pit that kept forming every time it rained.

It worked! The pine bedding mixes with the dirt and becomes pebbly instead of soggy, making it so a) it’s not a mud pit, even if it rains for days and b) the chickens are able to take their dust baths when the rain finally stops for a day or so. It’s basically a miracle in a bag, and costs like $6 for 40 lbs of the stuff (enough to cover their run). I’ve had to replenish it once since I started in January, but I’ll take that over the sopping, poopy mess we were enduring before.

I’ve also rigged a contraption made of bird netting and PVC pipe above their coop door that has (knock on wood) kept them from escaping for the past week. Here’s hoping it continues to work!

Their egg production has been pretty consistent throughout the winter, and has been ramping up a bit as the weather gets warmer – the past two or three days have yielded 5-6 eggs per day (meaning, all of them have laid an egg at some point in that time period), versus the 2-4 we got in the colder days. This is without heaters, extra lights, or other artificial contraptions designed to make hens lay all year, so we’re pretty pleased overall. (And yes, we do find uses for all of those eggs. More on that in another post!)

I mentioned chicken recess earlier in the post. Because we’ve had some pretty gross (and sometimes gnarly) winter weather this year, sometimes the chickens stay in their run all day, and even in their coop if it’s particularly cold or snowy. (The latter is the choice of the hens, who huddle in the corner and look at us like we’re crazy when we open the coop door on stupid-cold mornings.) We also don’t want them scratching up patches of grass and vegetation if the ground is muddy and cold, since stuff doesn’t grow back quickly enough to repair the damage.

Enter chicken recess: a delightful period of about 20 minutes in the evening, just before the chickens put themselves to bed, where we open the run door and let them run around the backyard as they please, supervised. This way, the chickens get to come out and scratch different parts of the yard for a very short period (and thereby doing very little damage) while we’re entertained with their antics. It’s much better than TV, I promise. And chickens are delightfully (sometimes infuriatingly, but mostly delightfully) regimented creatures: they return to their safe coop, without fail, every evening when the sun sets.

Seed Starting

Lastly, we’re doing legit seed starting this year, with grow lights and all (our Christmas present to ourselves), which is very exciting and necessary with our impending new arrival. So far, we’ve got peppers, parsley, tomatoes, and basil going, with other plants on the way according to growth schedules.

I leave you with our excitement this morning of finally seeing banana pepper seedlings popping out! No matter how many years you plant things from seed, it’s still a danged miracle when they actually sprout, and I’m grateful for it every time.

Happy banana pepper dance is in order!

Until next time, happy homesteading, y’all!

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