Self-Sufficiency Series

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Beautiful words

Reader Jeff wrote a comment on the Garden Update post which was so poetic I didn't want it buried.

As easily as anyone I can see an outward sign of what most regard as wealth...big fancy houses, expensive exotic cars, first-class world travel... the list is endless...and feel a certain real attraction from time to time. But for sheer jealously, pure longing, a palpable, wistful desire, for me nothing can compete with the images of a bountiful garden.

Even knowing the unimaginable amount of hard work it represents, I am overcome with jealousy. Smiling, good-natured jealously, but all the same. I am currently not in a position, space-wise, climate-wise, time-wise, else-wise to even begin to address my shortcomings in this regard. Were I there, I'd give you a big hug, Don a solemn handshake, and without words, wander endlessly, in awe, around the tires, til someone came with a flashlight and fetched me out of the darkness.


Reminds me of the lovely poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney, the most famous verse of which is:

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,--
One is nearer God's heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hay question

A reader had a question on my post Bringing in the Hay regarding feeding cattle. I started to answer but my reply became so long I decided to make it a separate blog post.

Here is the reader's question:

We are fixing to get cattle for the first time and are debating on how best to feed them. I would like, in an ideal world, to 100% grass feed them, but having only a small pasture (1.5 acres) will make that difficult. Thankfully my parents have a small hay field so we are getting a good deal on hay, but my dad is insistent that we will have to feed grain, too.

How do you feed your cattle, particularly in winter?

My reply:

We feed exclusively 100% grass hay during all times of the year the animals can’t get enough to eat by grazing. Keep in mind if you only have a 1.5 acre pasture (and depending on how many animals you’re getting), it will get eaten down in a fairly short period of time (even during the lushest summer months) and you’ll have to supplement their feed with hay the rest of the year. I sympathize because when we lived in Oregon, our pasture was only about 2.5 acres, so we had to feed almost year-round.

Keep an eye on your pasturage. Some neglectful livestock owners have the extraordinary notion that just because their animals are in a field, they are getting enough to eat. But if the field is eaten down to bare dirt, the animals could be starving. Be vigilant and attentive to the needs of your animals. Besides the cruelty factor, hungry cows won’t give much milk.

For winter feeding (or for feeding when the pasture isn't providing enough food), a rough rule of thumb is about 3% of body weight per day in hay. For a thousand-pound cow, this translates to 30 lbs. of hay per day, usually split between two feedings. Some people free-feed, which is fine; but you’ll go through a lot more hay that way because they tend to lay down on it, and/or defecate/urinate on it.

“Hay” is a generic term referring to dried plant material, either grasses, legumes, or a combination. Depending on your climate, terrain, rainfall, and other factors, you may have to supplement year-round.

Not all hay is created equal. Alfalfa is a high-protein high-quality feed, but it’s also very expensive and a pure alfalfa diet may be too rich. Cheatgrass is a low-quality low-nutritional forage that, at least in our case, our cows loathe. In our area we also get a lot of St. John’s wort and yellow hawkweed, both of which are nasty and non-nutritious for cattle.

I don’t know what kind of grass is in your father’s hayfield, but you’ll need to be vigilant that it’s of decent quality, not garbage.

Grass hay such as a timothy/brome mix, or oat hay, are excellent general choices for livestock. These are usually among the more affordable feeds as well. Because these hays are less rich in protein, a small grain supplement won’t hurt your animals, but it’s not necessary either.

Grain is used to “finish” beef cattle (fatten them up before slaughter). It’s also used to supplement the feed of high-producing dairy cattle whose bodies must go into hyperdrive to supply milk under commercial dairy conditions. But for a small homestead, grain is not necessary except for the occasional “bribe” for training or cooperation (sort of like bribing your toddler with an M&M when they use the potty chair).

Grain is high-protein and cattle love it; but let’s face facts, it’s not what they were bred to eat. Kids love cookies, but they aren’t “bred” to live on cookies to the exclusion of healthier foods. Similarly, cows love grain but were bred to live on grass.

So reserve grain as a treat, a training aid, and perhaps as a nutritional boost for a lactating animal; but don’t get caught up in the notion that livestock MUST have grain. We’ve raised cows for years with nary a grain in sight.

Make sure your grain is INACCESSIBLE to your livestock at all times, except when you're feeding small amounts. We have some friends who tragically lost a beloved dairy animal because she broke into the grain storage and gorged. She had to be put down and it was sad loss to these folks.

Your livestock should also have access to minerals, either with a mineral block or with loose mineral salts.

And needless to say, water! Your animals must always have fresh water available.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Garden update

Now that the heat wave we've had for the last six weeks has broken, I can start catching up on weeding in the garden during the day instead of at 5:30 am. I'm estimating we have one more month (until about mid-September) before our growing season ends, so some of the plants are in a race for time.

The other day I was weeding the potatoes when it occurred to me I hadn't posted a garden update since early June. So without further ado, here's how things have developed this summer.

I usually do my weeding with the aid of a pokey-stick hand weeder thingy. Very useful device.

But I couldn't use it with the potatoes because every time I plunged it into the dirt to loosen a weed, I hit a potato. Well shucky-darn.

There are eight tires of potatoes: two red and six brown (Russet). Although many of the leaves are curled, the potatoes themselves seem to be developing very well.

The corn has been a fascinating experiment. I'm trying a new variety this year, called Yukon Chief sweet corn. It was developed at University of Alaska in 1958, and it only takes 55 days from germination to harvest. Despite being a dwarf variety, it's supposed to be a vigorous producer. We planted twenty tires.

It's an interesting variety. When it was still very young, all the corn stalks split themselves into three.

This corn is tough. During three violent thunderstorms, it's been flattened in one direction or another. And all three times it's sprung back upright (well, mostly). That it itself makes me admire it.

To my surprise, when the corn was no more than two feet high, it started tasseling. What the...? But despite the small stature, it's been vigorously producing ears of corn. They're not huge, but they're abundant.

Don picked an ear the other day. It still wasn't quite ripe but it was already sweet. If this variety lives up to its promise, we'll never grow anything else. The ears are small, yes; but if it can survive multiple flattenings through violent storms AND complete its lifespan and produce abundantly during our short growing season, this is the corn for us!! Unless something drastic changes, we plan to double the number of corn tires next year (to forty).

Here are our "viney" tires in which we planted watermelon, cantaloup, honeydew, and pumpkins. We were still working on the garden infrastructure until late in the planting season, so these all got planted later than we would have liked. Still, they seem to be producing reasonably well. (I consider anything that ripens before the first frost as a success.)




The pumpkins themselves are still pretty small, but they'll fatten up in the next month.

Carrots. I planted two tires, but planted them late. I think I'll get mature carrots before the first frost hits, but we'll see. I may just let these over-winter and save them for seed next year. I also plan to put in more beds of carrots next year -- they're easy to grow and can beautifully.

The round strawberry beds (we also have two rectangular raised beds). These, if you recall, produced overwhelming quantities of strawberries this year. Wonderful success!

Brussel's sprouts. These poor plants got severely battered by the thunderstorms, but they're still alive. However I haven't seen any sprouts on them yet. We'll see if they do anything by the end of the season.

Broccoli. I only have two tires of broccoli and wish I'd grown more.

The tomatoes have done awful. I have five tires' worth of tomato plants (both paste and eating tomatoes) and every one has tightly-curled leaves, lots of flowers, but barely any fruit. Does anyone know why tomato leaves curl like this? Could it be the heat was too intense? I'm disappointed because I was looking forward to canning a variety of tomato sauces this year.

Lettuce. It's grown splendidly -- far more than we can eat -- so I'll save a lot for seed. Lettuce is NOT something I'm emphasizing in the garden (despite the fact that we all enjoy salads) because it's a vegetable that cannot be preserved in any way whatever. Therefore we'll only grow a tire or two for fresh eating.

Spinach. Between the heat wave and my trip to Portland, the spinach went beyond the eating stage into the seed stage. That's fine, I'll save it for seed. I only have one tire's worth anyway. However I'll probably grow more next year because spinach cans well and makes an excellent addition to many dishes (such as lasagna).

The onions are doing very well, though I feel like I "cheated" with these because I started them from sets. I planted 200 onion seeds in early spring but they didn't survive. Starting onions from seeds is more challenging than I thought and will take some additional research and experimentation before I get it right. Meanwhile, I'm glad sets were available.

Red bell peppers, a favorite of Younger Daughter. I'm particularly proud of these because I started them from seed from a store-bought bell pepper, and they've all grown splendidly.

We have a lot of peppers which will flush red when they're ripe.

Hot peppers, possible the one single item in the garden that thrived during the heat wave.

We're growing several types: cayenne, cascabella, and habinero.

Horseradish. This is rescued from one of last year's weed-infested tires from an untarped part of the garden. I thought I'd killed the horseradish because we dumped the tire, rescued the roots, and then I put the roots aside and forgot about them in the sun for several days. Then (hoping to save some of the roots) I soaked them in a tub and -- you guessed it -- forgot about them for several days. At that point I figured the roots were too far gone to regrow, but I planted them anyway. Several grew -- yeah! -- so we'll divvy the roots up this fall and re-plant again.

The horseradish is attracting these tiny black beetles that have apparently been munching on the leaves.

But it's also attracting ladybugs, which at first I thought were munching on the beetles.

Or perhaps the ladybugs are just eating aphids. I think I see one in the upper left of this photo, in one of the leaf's white spots.

There were also a lot of wasps on the horseradish for some reason. Are they eating the beetles? I couldn't tell -- and didn't want to get too close to find out.

Of course the raspberries did well...

...and the blueberries are producing abundantly.

The herbs have flourished. Here's basil:





The peas have done poorly, so poorly that we didn't even bother putting in fencing for the vines to climb (because they didn't get big enough). The problem with the peas is simple: I planted them too late. Peas love cooler weather, and this summer's blasting heat wave did nothing to help them. I've had bumper crops of peas in the past, however, so I'll plant earlier next year (since now our infrastructure is now in place) with anticipation of more success.

The few pods I have, I'll save for seed.

Despite losing a lot of green pears in the last storm, the pear tree (our surviving remnant of the original 15 trees we planted years ago) is bearing well.

The beans are the biggest failure. I planted only two tires of beans (dried beans) because I've had spotty success with beans in the past. (Green beans grow well, but I didn't plant any this year - I ran out of tires.) But for some reason dry beans have problems here. Often the tender young leaves get eaten right after germination, making me wonder if robins or some other birds were nipping them off. So this year I netted the tires right after planting... and the beans still grew up stunted and undersized. Why? We don't have a slug or snail problem here, so I don't know why they won't grow. Are they being devoured by insects?

If there's one take-home lesson from this year's garden, it's the success of the drip irrigation system Don installed. Not only is it far more time- and water-efficient, but it insured the plants would receive water even during the hottest days of our heat spell when NONE of us wanted to go outside to water the garden by hand. (All we had to do was dash out, turn on the drip irrigation, and retreat back into the house.) The only thing not on the drip system are the strawberry tires, the carrot tires, and some of the herbs. I water these by hand and it only takes about 20 minutes a day.

We're also learning what grows reliably as a survival food (potatoes, corn) and what doesn't (beans). If the time comes when we're forced to live off the garden, this is important information to know.

We have lots more space in the garden and next year will install a lot more tires and irrigation. We also plan to fence off and plant an orchard, giving it one last chance.

But the success (and some failures) of this year's garden, as always, taught us a lot... and underscored the need for the learning curve to happen now, before it's a matter of life and death.

And of course, we can't forget those men and women whose tilling of the earth feeds us all, every day. A friend sent this.