Teenage Girls and Coop Plans

This spring has proven to be the most surreal experience. We had been gearing up for spring break, trying to plan all our big projects and organizing for one week, only to find out that Kansas closed schools for the rest of the school year due to COVID-19. My brain hurts, I slept terribly last night for nightmares and uncertain dreams about missing my kiddos at school, and I’m exhausted, so I won’t go into details here and now. Needless to say, until we start semi-teaching again online in two weeks, I have a lot of time on my hands.

While the girls are growing, I’ve been trying to accomplish various tasks and projects around the house. We brought home chicks just over two weeks ago, but I have a sneaking suspicion we are actually closer to three weeks old. We’ve recently started establishing the pecking order with two of my Golden-laced girls doing lots of chest-bumping and surprise landings to spook and intimidate.

2 weeks old! Dandelions are yummy, especially when they come attached to dirty roots that might have some creepy crawlies left in them.

To help with the pecking order chaos, I’m trying to keep them occupied with an extra feeder, lots of sticks to climb and play on, and a variety of engaging treats. We love hard-boiled egg so far (yes, you can and should feed cooked egg to babies!) and are especially excited by Daddy’s leftover seedlings from thinning. We will pick up a little Romaine seedling and run peeping through the brooder with the rest of the girls at our backs!

Our brooder set up for 12 chicks, expanded at 2 weeks old: now featuring chick grit, a dust bath, extra feeders & waterers, lots of sticks, fun greens, and their favorite place to drop excrement – the top of the brooder warmer plate.

A big point of excitement, and relief, for us was to finally finish building the coop. We purchased plans online and hoped to build it ourselves, but this ended up being a big and expensive project! We knew it wouldn’t be cheap to buy a coop anyways, but I was hoping to spend less than $500, and it cost closer to $700 after materials.

It was our first carpentry project, and we didn’t bite off an easy one to start. We had to make some alterations as we went because some measurements were off and we made some mistakes reading the plans, but we are very happy with how it turned out!

All I need is a sign for the front, and we’re complete!
Nesting boxes to the right (I’ll fill with burlap later), roots in the middle (hardware cloth tacked underneath), and a ramp at the front. It’s my understanding that we will not need to close the bottom of the coop up in the winter – circulation is essential for them and their little bodies will provide a lot of radiant heat. Another bonus to buying Wyandottes – they’re cold hardy, featuring smaller combs and fluffier feathers.
Nesting boxes, pre-burlap sacks.

The coop is moveable, even by me – I added a rope to the front so I can pull it around the yard. The girls will have full access to the soil, bugs, grass, and snacks while staying confined and safe from neighborhood disturbances and at night they can climb the ramp to sleep above group for added safety. It combines so many elements I was looking for in a coop all into one package, and fingers crossed that it works well for the gals!

With some extra time the last couple of days I’ve continued to do some prep to the garden – cleaning out the leaves and large debris in the garden and building a larger woodpile, now that we’re low on wood. Now’s a time to keep busy in between the rains.

In the midst of all this chaos, being stuck at home and without much to do invites us to slow down. We’ve been stuck in a whirlwind of engagements, to-do lists, meetings, expectations, long days, for months. As miserable as a time as this might be, what with social distancing and all, perhaps its a call to heal, to slow, and to be thoughtful. While working in the garden this week I had so many opportunities to admire tiny sprouts, little feathers, and wee mushrooms.

3 week old Golden-Laced Wyandotte.

I’ll leave you all with this quote from Kitty O’Meara for tonight:

“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

“And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

“And when the danger passed, the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed. “

May you dream and heal wonderfully over the next few weeks and months.

Late Winter, 2020

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I hope this day finds you warm, well, and excited for spring! We are gearing up for an exciting season of growing and expansion. February finds us deep into seedling cultivation and baby chick planning.

This spring, we have three main goals:

  1. Sheet mulch and cultivate new growing areas in the backyard #growfoodnotlawns
  2. Establish hundreds (if not thousands!) of seedlings so that we can get a head start on spring planting
  3. Start a flock!

Sheet Mulching: #growfoodnotlawns

Setting landscape timbers on the edge of the garden, February 2020.

Thanks to Evan’s new research in permaculture, we’re trying a new method to help create a mini-food forest in our own backyard. Later this spring, we will be adding Nanking cherries, apple trees, Goumi bushes, and mulberry trees, but in the meantime, we are focusing on our “potager,” our garden area full of herbs, flowers, and vegetables. We previously had four long beds of single-row vegetables and this year we will be trying more of a keyhole style with much more integrated and dependent vegetables and herbs. More on this in the future!

Sheet mulching involves building organic matter through the decay from a three-bean-casserole style of mulching: cardboard (no plastic or stickers), green matter (grass & compost), and leaves. Early spring rains have been a perfect catalyst for the process – and the robins have been eagerly monitoring the decaying process!

Seedlings

We are extremely excited about a new method we are trying for seeds this year! In the past, we have started tomatoes and peppers inside and not much else. Our plans for checking and maintaining them daily were inconsistent due to rough schedules, so some days they struggled to thrive. We managed to keep them alive along enough for outside, but seedlings sown outside took so long to get started that we couldn’t fully exercise a three season garden between spring, summer, and fall – by the time the spring crops were healthy enough to produce, we were supposed to have summer crops sown, and the timing was just all sorts of off. (We were harvesting zucchinis in October…)

By sheer luck of letting YouTube play suggested videos one evening, we stumbled across a cute English gardener with hundreds of videos about no dig gardening. If you haven’t watched or read anything from Charles Dowding, then you ought to look him up – if nothing else, than for the way he pronounces “compost”with an English accent. Dowding starts everything in a greenhouse – kale, lettuce, beets, onions, you name it, it’s started ahead of time, and with 4-6 seeds per cell at a time. We realized that this method would buy us an entire extra season of growing if we could start things indoors and move out as young-to-teenage plants.

Fast forward to February, and we have two table-tops of seedlings laid out and thriving! Every day we turn the lights on and mist/water the trays and check it all again in the evening. On warm days, we move trays to the mini cold frame we constructed this fall to enjoy some true sunlight.

DIY cold frame with herbs and black bottles to absorb heat. On a 50-60 degree day, this cold frame can get to 90 degrees!

Currently in the trays: Detroit dark red beets, lettuce (Romaine and 4-Season Marvel), yellow sweet onions, Champion radishes, Bloomsdale spinach, Darkibor kale, and Lincoln sweet peas. My herbs: Valerian, bee balm, sage, lemon balm, St. John’s wort, chamomile, with elecampane and marshmallow on deck.

Mini Manure Makers

We have talked and dreamed about chickens for YEARS, and it’s finally time! (My mother and I joke that we should throw a baby chick shower for the girls!) We are in the process of building a big, beautiful coop courtesy of Kelly at the Green Willow Homestead – the best example I could find of a chicken tractor that provided protected ranging and a roost above the ground with minimal plastic usage.

With all our focus and work towards creating a food forest in the backyard, the first area of focus has to be soil. And what better way to help improve the soil than to employ mini manure makers and tillers to clear the path? (I am also incredibly stoked about the mosquito and garden pest elimination!)

With much research and reading, we’ve decided to bring home 6-8 Wyandotte chickens. I picked them for their ability to forage (enclosed run will be moved every day through our yard), cold hardiness, docile nature (though they apparently need some extra space and can be domineering with other breeds), and consistent laying, even through the wintertime. They aren’t a typical household breed, but they sure are gorgeous!

MyPetChicken.com has a lot of fabulous resources for your coop – this brooding “box” came from Amazon and is easy to clean and store.

We have a brooding box of sorts set up (circles keep the babies from getting stuck in corners) and have been sanitizing and cleaning with a gentle detergent this week in anticipation of bringing them home this weekend. Wish us luck on the first day at home!

If you are interested in reading more about raising birds, I’ve been a fan of two particular books in my research thus far:

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens provides an encyclopedia of knowledge through basic care, illness, troubleshooting, and is a fantastic how-to guide for chickens. It really is an all-encompassing guide for a lot of traditional methods for raising birds in a variety of situations.

After reading Storey’s Guide, I picked up the Small Scale Poultry Flock based on recommendations for how to provide a more holistic and natural setup for the birds. Harvey Ussery digs into free-ranging, creating homemade blends of food with a scientific basis, and suggestions for more natural and holistic approaches, like how to assist molting and wintering processes with food and supplements rather than fighting the natural systems with lightbulbs to lengthen the days. (Let’s not also forget that this book includes a forward by Joel Salatin, one of our favorite authors and farmers in the sustainability and farm-focused movement in our times.)

We have so many more exciting things planned this spring and cannot wait to tell you more about them. In the meantime, follow me on Instagram @singtoyourplants for more daily updates, including the new dinosaur babies!

Bottom of the coop frame is built!

pH Testing with Butterfly Pea Flower

Homemade apple cider vinegar, several weeks in (left) and freshly-started (right).

I’ve been experimenting with making my own apple cider vinegar lately – on the surface, it seems very straightforward: ferment apple cider into vinegar. But, how do you know when it’s done, or that it’s actually vinegar and, therefore, actually beneficial?

Apple cider vinegar has so many health benefits as well as cleaning uses. It helps regulate blood sugar levels, is a natural disinfectant, contains gut-boosting bacteria strains as a fermented product, and might even boost weight loss. And while ACV can be expensive at the store (costing 25 cents per ounce), it’s incredibly easy to make at home for the cost of a few apple cores.

My mixture is a jar half full of organic apple scraps (peels, cores, you name it), filled to cover with water and 1/4 cup of sugar to provide food for the natural yeasts on the apples. Yeasts consume sugar and excrete alcohol, so letting them feast on all the sweet stuff is a necessity. To speed up the process, I tossed in some Bragg’s ACV (known for containing the mother, a group of established bacteria that help kick the fermentation process off). Then, it’s time to wait!

After the bubbling concludes (4-6 weeks), remove the apple scraps and let it continue to ferment and age past the alcoholic cider level to the vinegar level. But, this is the point makes me nervous – how do I know when it’s actually done, and that I’m not just scrubbing my counters with alcoholic cider? It tastes acidic and sharp, but definitely not identical to something like Bragg’s ACV. It was cloudy, which is what I expected to see if it’s growing a mother, but also did not have the expected cloudy, film-like top that would indicate it had achieved full mother-status.

An idea struck us this weekend – rather than wondering if my homemade ACV is vinegar, why not compare it to other vinegars and try to test what’s happening?

Surely, a quick way to test my vinegar would be with a pH strip – vinegar should be at a lower pH level than wine or beer, so this would help distinguish where we are in the process of aging/fermenting. l I searched the house high and low for a pH test strip – I thought I had some buried from kombucha work, but no luck. I found some at the grocery store…for the pretty price of $12. And then we remembered what we have in the cabinets – butterfly pea flower!

Kitty helpers are never hard to find.

This beautiful, deep-blue flower that grows on a particular variety of pea can be used to dye things a brilliant shade of blue, and we’ve been playing with dried butterfly pea flower at the restaurant to make cocktails. Butterfly pea flower, when used in an acidic state, is brilliant blue, but add levels of acid to it and you gradually turn it pinker as it responds to the acidity change. The cocktail we made with it was nicknamed the hydrangea, because hydrangeas depict the acid change of soil through the colors of their petals.

Butterfly pea flower tea, in alkaline and acidic states.

I made an infusion with the butterfly pea flower and hot water to make a tea (bright blue). At the restaurant, we would use lemon juice (i.e. citric acid) to alter the chemical composition of the blue drink to a bright pink, and luckily, lemon juice and vinegar are actually very close to each other in pH levels.

0: Hydrochloric acid
1.0: Stomach acid
2.0: Lemon juice
2.2: Vinegar
3.0: Apples, soda
4.0: Wine, beer
5.0: Black coffee
6.6: Milk
7.4: Human blood & tears
8: Seawater
11: Ammonia
12.4: Lime (calcium hydroxide)

I had Bragg’s ACV on hand, so I split my butterfly pea tea into two batches so I could compare my homemade apple cider vinegar against something I knew definitively was apple cider vinegar. I added an ounce each to the cups, and in a blink of an eye, I had my results!

I had achieved vinegar status! YES! Upon close examination, I think my ACV might be a smidge under-done (on the right, ever-so-slightly more purple/blue), so I’ll have to let it go a couple of more weeks, but at least I know that I haven’t been dumping cider into my smoothies every morning.

Nature can provide us with so many fixes and options, if only we know where to look for it – and butterfly pea flower can be such a pretty fix to play with!

Growing Loofah

Have you ever grown one of these squashes in your garden? We tried growing loofah this year for the first time and got to get a tantalizing glimpse into growing our own sponges.

Loofah grows just like cucumbers and zucchini and other squashes – in fact, you can harvest young loofah and eat them just like a squash! (Though, I haven’t tried eating them myself.) Our loofah barely had time to take off due to some unfortunate circumstances with corn overshadowing them, but once we got up and going the blooms turned to fruit in no time.

Loofah flowers on the vine.

Before this summer, black beans and potatoes had been two of my most favorite vegetables or legumes to grow, but now loofah has joined the ranks. These three plants have got to be some of the easiest plants to grow – plant, water, and they proclaim to the heavens that they’re ready to harvest by dying off. It’s that easy. No guessing game of lifting the tomato or pepper and seeing if they give away in your hand easily, trying to not touch the fruits of the blueberry too soon or risk knocking them off or eating sour fruit, not trying to hide the ripe strawberries from the birds.

Black beans, or turtle beans as some know them, grow until their pods turn papery thin and the beans rattle, and by then, the rest of the plant has usually died to a crisp husk anyway. Potato greens yellow, die back, and fall to the ground when it is time. And loofahs? They steadily turn crispy and yellow themselves – drying and hollowing out with seeds falling free inside the skin. And so you have it – they tell you when it’s time to pick!

The freeze came on quickly in October and I still had a loofah growing, so we didn’t give it a chance to finish its drying process on the vine, so I tucked it into a well-ventilated area of our kitchen where it could stay cool and dry while it finished drying. Finally, in January, it was ready – seeds rattling away in the crunchy husk on the counter. I pulled off the husk by hand and did my best to pull out the seeds (because it hadn’t fully matured on the vine, many seeds were under-formed and therefore stuck), rinsed thoroughly with water, and set the loofah pieces out to dry.

And voila! Not only do we have some sponges for cleaning grown from our own backyard that will decompose beautifully back into the soil when we’re done, but I have even more seeds to plant to grow more of them next year.

Happy cleaning!

Herbal Preparations

Happy holidays to all, and I hope this post finds you well and in good health! Today I’m writing about herbs and an exciting new path in herbalism that I started this month.

Since we started gardening, I’ve been more and more curious about herbs and their properties for healing and general health. It started with aromatherapy – my bathroom cabinet has probably close to 25 bottles of essential oils for anything from a Christmas seasonal blend that doubles as a defense for the immune system to a blend for bug spray and plenty of my usual favorite, lavender. I keep a diffuser at home and one at school, and my kids always comment on how inviting our classroom smells with lavender and lemon blends.

(From what I read, you have to be careful with aromatherapy and pets – our endocrine system can process the oils while our fur babies can’t, so if you use aromatherapy in your home, at least provide adequate ventilation and allow your pets to leave the space as needed – but check with your veterinarian for details, of course.)

Seasonal Defensive Blend of Essential Oils

add to a diffuser or a pot of steaming water to fill your home with seasonal warmth!
  • 5 drops rosemary essential oil
  • 5 drops cinnamon bark essential oil
  • 5 drops orange essential oil
  • 2 drops clove oil

Aromatherapy is just that, though – for your smell-izer, not to be taken internally. As we started learning more about the importance of food and the vitamins, antioxidants, and more that the right foods provide, the same suggestions kept popping up alongside the vegetable and fruit recommendations: yarrow helps with circulatory health, echinacea is immune-boosting, dandelion root is good for your liver. I had no idea what to really do with the recommendations, and they usually came as vague as I presented them here. Am I supposed to just gnaw on a dandelion? (Ew.)

Dried chamomile flowers.

I could find dandelion tea and echinacea tinctures at our co-op, so I was at least able to start utilizing the recommendations, but it still seemed like such a grey area – ideas obscured by a lack of knowledge and the cloudiness of contradiction that comes from scanning through Pinterest posts.

I started experimenting – last spring I tried my hand at a nettle tincture to help with my miserable seasonal allergies, and I was pleasantly surprised at how easy and how effective it seemed to be! I’m blessed to have quite the selection of bulk herbs at our local co-op, so I purchased some dried stinging nettle (it only stings when its fresh) and infused it with vodka for about a month, shaking occasionally. Keep in mind, our household bartending experience means that we’re comfortable setting up infusions on a regular basis, but what I didn’t realize is that alcohol can be specifically used to unlock properties in herbs that aren’t otherwise available through water (or aren’t as potent). After straining off the nettle menstruum (the liquid), 2-3 droppers a day helped greatly abate my miserable sinuses and watery eyes during ragweed season.

This fall, I saw a post from Herbal Academy about how to make homemade fire cider and I was HOOKED. I had seen too many sketchy-looking recipes or non-specific ingredient lists on Pinterest so I jumped right in. “At its most basic, it’s a zesty infused vinegar, packed with powerful immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and circulatory herbs” – it is a treasure chest of defense, and as an elementary teacher tired of getting the gastrointestinal joy every winter, this sounded like a win.

Homemade fire cider – red onions, whole lemons, a bazillion pieces of ginger, turmeric, ginger, thyme, pepper, cinnamon sticks, elderberries, and apple cider vinegar. It warms all the way down!

After reading and researching more about the Herbal Academy, I signed up to take their intermediate herbal course to learn more about herbalism. I’m two units in and loving all the information so far – the recipes, monographs about herbs, history, and more. So today, I experimented on two recipes – a calendula flower oil (to later be a salve for sore muscles, bruises, and aches & pains) and a immune support tincture made from elderberries, echinacea root, ginger, and yarrow (yarrow grown from my own garden this year!).

Calendula oil and an immune tincture in the works!

If you have ever been curious about herbs, I highly recommend checking out herbalism or the Herbal Academy website. Here’s to a healthful winter – happy holidays to you!