Category Archives: Gardening

Duck update

I haven’t really moved in until I have a fire ring full of compost in the backyard. The five-gallon buckets are the latest in my epic quest for an acceptable duck-pond filtration system.

Plan A: Adopt four ducklings, free-range them in the backyard, and give them an $8 kiddie pool to play in and a $60 doghouse to sleep in, because it’s cheaper than investing $300 in the prefabbed chicken coop that I want but Ron says we can’t afford.

Plan B (four weeks later): Get tired of draining the kiddie pool with a bucket every two days. Build pond and biofilter — with hose bibb attached to the top to make water changes fast and easy — out of a $60 stock tank and another $60 worth of gravel, plumbing parts, and other materials. Feel terribly clever.

Plan C (12 hours later): Discover that biofilters made from five-gallon buckets float, even when filled with water. Cuss. Add sand, gravel, and various other media to try to get submersible filter to stay submerged.

Plan D (12 hours later): Discover that five-gallon buckets full of waterlogged sand and gravel also float, because to hell with the laws of physics, that’s why. Cuss. Jury-rig $4 system for anchoring filter in place.

Plan E (12 hours later): Discover design flaw in anchoring system that keeps pump from functioning in new filter. Cuss. Spend another $30 on parts to build an external biofilter.

Plan F (5 days later): Discover that ducks generate way more particulate matter than a simple biofilter can handle, thus choking down the pump approximately 37 times a day. Cuss. Rummage through shed, find small plastic tub and some bungee cords, and construct mechanical filter to protect the pump.

Plan G (3 days later): Discover that pump is way too powerful to get away with using half-inch fittings for the entire project. Cuss. Blow another $70 on parts and materials to construct a finer mechanical filter, a clarifier, and a filter with outlets of increasing size. Damage filter while building it. Cuss. Repair it with duct tape and caulk, because hell with it. Watch in amusement as duct tape and white-trash engineering one-up all previous efforts and filter works better than all previous attempts, ostensibly because of better engineering, but probably because duct tape fixes everything.

Plan H (Somewhere in the middle of all that): Discover, on first warm day, that duck poop attracts a veritable plague of flies. Research problem. Determine that deep-bedding method will control flies while generating good compost starter. Make plans to invest $250 in enough fencing to confine the ducks to a comfortable corner of the yard with their pond, their house, and their favorite tree.

I’m so glad we didn’t waste $300 on a prefabbed chicken coop we could have assembled in one afternoon….

Emily

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Duck yeah!

I can’t believe I got away with this.

They already smell weird, and I’m pretty sure they are going to annoy me beyond belief, but don’t act like these aren’t the cutest little things you’ve ever seen.

I hired some help for the garden.
Complaining already. It’s gonna be a long four weeks.

Walter is a bit more curious than I’d like, but I can lock him out of my office easily enough to keep them safe when I can’t supervise.

“Mom! Mom, what is that? Is something alive in that crate? Can I make it dead?”

We’ll see how this goes. The good thing about ducks is that they grow faster than chickens, so they should be big enough to kick out into the backyard in a month or less.

Emily

Broody.

My late buff Orpington hen, Pushy Galore, was one of the funniest animals I have ever owned.

As I do every year at about this time, I’ve gone broody.

I need chickens.

Actually, what I *really* need is quail, but they aren’t available locally. Failing that, I’d like a duckling. Or two. Or six. Whatever. Ron is balking, but I’ve seen a couple of people in town raising them as backyard pets, and they appear to be thriving. Sure, their wading pool will probably add a coupla bucks a month to the water bill, but that’s still cheaper than buying eggs at the grocery store. Plus if I ever adopt that Border collie I’ve been thinking about since January, it will have something to herd, so it won’t get bored and spend all day annoying me. And if we end up hating them? Duck is DELICIOUS. I’m not seeing a down side here.

Anyway, one way or the other, it is that magical time of year when a Rubbermaid tub full of shavings and a screen are supposed to appear in my office, and a heat lamp is supposed to hang over them, warming a flock of stinky-yet-adorable balls of fuzz.

My favorite chicken breed, as anybody who’s spent much time on this blog knows, is the buff Orpington. Orps are good layers with great personalities — curious as cats and almost as friendly as dogs. They get along well with other chickens, they’re decent foragers, and they’re entertaining enough that I could probably cancel my Britbox subscription if I had a flock. WIN.

Tractor Supply — the only local source for chicks that I’m aware of at the moment — does not carry buff Orpingtons. Or any other variety of Orpingtons, for that matter. They do, however, have a few barred Rocks, and if I’m completely honest with myself, I’ll admit that Rocks are probably a better choice for our yard than Orpingtons, because they’re much more aggressive foragers, and I’m told this neighborhood is lousy with scorpions in the summer. A flock of feisty barred Rock hens would happily knock down the scorpion population for me.

I think I’ll head out to the shed to take a quick inventory of my chick-rearing equipment, and then I’ll cruise down 66 to Tractor Supply and see what kind of feathered friends I can rustle up.

Emily

Squiggly friend

Look at my new squiggly friend! I met him in the garden this afternoon.

Isn't he pretty? I think he's a garter snake.
Isn’t he pretty? I think he’s a garter snake. He’s about two feet long and about as big around as a penny.
I love his little red tongue.
I love his little red tongue.
I hope he likes slugs. I could use some help reducing the slug population.
I hope he likes slugs. I could use some help reducing the slug population.

I would like the record to show that I was a very good girl and did not try to pick up my slithery new friend or pet him, even though I really, really wanted to.

I showed my pictures to people at work today, but nobody there likes snakes. I don’t know why. I think he’s cute. I like his racing stripes and his pretty brown eyes and his flickery little tongue. I was pretty excited to find him in the garden, partly because I’ve never seen a snake in my yard before and partly because cold-blooded animals are a sure sign of spring.

Emily

Sunday Self-Care: Making the beds

As I mentioned several weeks ago, I don’t stop gardening in the winter. Time spent working in the sunshine is a necessity if I’m to keep seasonal depression at bay, and winter is an ideal time to work on a garden’s infrastructure. My focus this year has been adding raised beds. I had six last year, and my goal is to have a dozen by planting time this year — a task that should be accomplished easily enough, as we generally buy one every paycheck, and we’re still five checks away from Planting Day.

I think the bird's-nest concept takes up too much room to work in the garden itself, but it'll be cute around a raised bed in the front yard later on.
I think that bird’s-nest concept takes up too much room to work in the garden proper, but it’ll be cute around a flowerbed in the front yard later on.

I’ve been filling the beds with compostable materials, peat moss, and finished compost. A third of a bale of peat on the bottom provides filler as well as drainage and aeration, and three bags of compost on top will just about fill up the bed, for a total cost of about $8 per bed.

I can’t say enough good things about these beds, which are just plain old 36-inch fire rings. They run between $30 and $45 apiece, depending on where you buy them and whether you catch a sale, and they’re lightweight, easy to position (just roll them where you want them), and make planting and weeding very easy. I installed them out of necessity — the juglones from the neighbors’ black walnut and pecan trees have rendered the soil in my backyard worthless for growing most vegetables — but they’ve proven so advantageous in so many directions, I’m not sure I’d go back to traditional rows even if I had the option.

As you can see in the picture, I’ve also started mulching with cedar shavings in between beds. They look neat, discourage pests, and smell nice when I walk over them.

Emily

P.S.: The tin cans you see in one of the rings in the top picture are leftovers from last year’s plantings. Besides being a good way to start seeds, the cans help protect young plants from marauding squirrels, which love to dig through my raised beds in search of nuts. My tomato plants wouldn’t have survived without them last year.

Daydreaming in a winter garden

I spent a little time in the garden last week, pulling out last summer’s tomato vines and clearing the beds so they’ll be ready to replant this spring. I wasn’t sure what to do with the vines, and while the fire-ring raised beds are neat and easy to work with, they’re not terribly pretty. My long-term goal for the backyard is to turn it into something straight out of a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel — an irresistible Heligan in miniature, if you will — and big metal rings aren’t quite up to that standard. I’d been considering various options for making them more aesthetically pleasing and getting them to blend in with the scenery a little better, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on retaining-wall blocks or stackable stone. While I was standing on the deck, surveying the yard and taking a mental inventory of the tasks I need to complete before spring, I noticed an abandoned doves’ nest on top of the fence post nearest the house and had an idea for recycling those spent tomato vines:

I can't decide whether this one makes any sense, but I think if I relocated it to the morel bed next to the house, I could put a couple of large, egg-shaped stones in it and have something adorable.
I can’t decide whether this one makes any sense, but I think if I relocated it to the morel bed next to the house, I could put a couple of large, egg-shaped stones in it and have something adorable.

I’m trying to decide whether I like it. It certainly blends in better than a bare metal ring, so I’ll probably keep it until I think of a better idea.

Meanwhile, I was perusing the Shumway’s catalog and found this:

I'm not a big fan of roses, as they tend to be finicky and high-maintenance, but I'll make an exception for this one.
I’m not a big fan of roses, as they tend to be finicky and high-maintenance, but I’ll make an exception for this one.

Obviously I’ll be ordering a couple of these so I can have me a time with a poor man’s lady this summer.

Emily

P.S.: Confession No. 1: When I was 16, I wanted to be Neil Diamond’s backup singer when I grew up. Confession No. 2: I still do.

Eco-Saturday: Grow your own sprouts

I love sprouts. They’re higher in protein and nutrients than lettuce and taste good in salads and sandwiches.

What I don’t love are the plastic containers in which they’re packed. Those clamshell boxes are usually recyclable, but the little humidifier pads at the bottom aren’t, and avoiding plastic altogether is generally better for the environment than using it once and then recycling it.

That brings me to one of my favorite winter projects: growing my own sprouts.

In this planting zone, December gardening is a no-go unless you have a heated greenhouse or a hydroponic operation. Sprouts, however, grow just fine on a shelf in the dining room, where I keep a sprouter going most of the winter.

Theoretically, you can grow sprouts in a canning jar with a piece of cheesecloth stretched across the top, but I’ve never had good luck with this approach. Small sprouters are available for about $20 apiece (I use this one, but any similar model will do), and they tend to work much better than the canning-jar approach.

Alfalfa seeds, left, and lentils, right, are good for sprouting. You'll probably have to hit the health-food store for alfalfa seeds.
Alfalfa seeds, left, and lentils, right, are good for sprouting. You’ll probably have to hit the health-food store for alfalfa seeds.

Sprouting is easy, but like any other kind of gardening, it requires a little time and attention. Here’s the general upshot:

1. Change the water frequently. My sprouter is designed with stackable trays that have small drainage holes in the bottom. You run water in the top tray, and it percolates down, watering the sprouts at each level before collecting in a solid tray at the bottom. At least twice a day, I dump out the water, rotate the trays, and water the top one. (Don’t reuse the old water.)

2. Keep an eye on the drainage holes. As the roots grow, some may extend down into the holes and clog them up. If you notice water doesn’t seem to be draining right, sterilize a needle and use it to unclog the holes.

3. Don’t let your sprouts dry out. If your indoor air is really dry, you may need to cover the top to help keep moisture in for the first day or two. When the sprouts are about a quarter-inch long, remove the cover and start rotating the trays each time you water so the same tray isn’t constantly on top, where it’s more likely to dry out.

4. Stagger your plantings. Most varieties will go from seed to salad in three or four days. If you start new seeds every couple of days, you’ll have a constant supply of fresh greens. (Be sure to wash the trays in between harvests.)

You should be able to find sprouting seeds at any health-food store. You can also sprout brown lentils, which are available by the pound at pretty much any grocery store.

Emily