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Panthers Hollow

Becoming Resourceful

Jennifer QuinnMy mother was fond of admonishing me about my various character defects, and one of her more common admonitions was, “You need to be more resourceful!” Well, as a homesteader on a limited budget, I’m finally developing this trait. Here’s an example.

The other day I was rushing to an appointment and found that someone had parked a truck at the edge of the road right by the entrance to my private road, blocking my view. Now, if I had been really resourceful I guess I would have found the driver of the truck and asked him to move it. But I was in a hurry, so I decided to wing it, thinking I had already checked the traffic before I headed up the hill. I guess I took too long double-checking in the other direction, because I crept out just in time to see a red pickup emerge from behind the parked vehicle, heading directly for my front end!

Fortunately, all it did was rip off my front bumper, leaving it lying in the roadway. The pickup wasn’t even damaged. So, after we moved the bumper to the side of the road, I took off for my appointment in town. On returning, I contemplated what to do with the bumper. At first I thought of taking it to a repair shop and having it re-attached, though it was a bit torn up. But I wondered if they’d even want to mess with it in the condition it was in. I had no idea what a new one would cost, but thought it was probably more than I had at the moment. Then I got to thinking...could I just wire it back on for the time being?

I started scrutinizing the font end of the car and discovered several slots where a wire could be put through. I went back to the house and returned with a coil of wire, my best wire snips, and a pair of pliers. Once I had one end secured in place the rest wasn’t so hard. The biggest challenge was the three pieces of the grill that had fallen out. But after about an hour’s work I ended up with what you see in the picture. Not bad, huh?

I suppose eventually I’ll need to get a new bumper, but this should hold it for quite a while, I think. Just one small problem: I just realized my front license plate is missing!

car

Round Two in the Apple Wars

Jennifer QuinnAfter all the work I’ve done on my old apple trees and all the blossoms they had this spring, I was really hoping for a decent harvest this year. The one thing I hadn’t figured out was how to keep the deer and the raccoons off them. I put plastic net fencing around them, mainly to keep the chickens out since I had sown mammoth red clover underneath; but I hoped maybe that would also discourage the deer. They wouldn’t jump over it, I figured, because there wasn’t enough room to land inside. Wouldn’t you know, they just pulled it down, bending a couple of the U-posts flat in the process? You can see where they’ve eaten all the leaves off the bottom branches, as well as the apples. And apparently the raccoons got in, too, because all but three of the apples were gone before they were ripe.

Those last three apples were way out on a limb where apparently nobody could reach them, so I finally pulled them down. As it turned out, two of them were still underripe and inedible, but the third one was actually quite good. So that gave me hope, and got me thinking. Then I came up with an idea for protecting the trees. What if I wrap the trunk and the lower branches in that prickly plastic that I’ve used (unsuccessfully) to keep the cats off the counters. Would that be too uncomfortable for the raccoons to climb on? Well, probably not, since the cats don’t seem to mind it, but maybe it’s worth a try.

Then, I thought, maybe I could fasten bird netting or something over the lower branches, making it too difficult for the deer to eat the apples. There’s also the question of the new apple tree that I’ve planted closer to the house, which is doing very nicely. Next year will be its third, and I’m told it should probably start bearing by then.

I just added a hot wire to the top of my garden fence to keep the deer out, so I’m replacing the energizer with a more powerful one. But I discovered the new one probably gives me a lot more power than I need. So what if I put a fence with a hot wire around both the new tree and the old trees and connect them to the garden fence? Supposedly if I bait the wire with bits of foil spread with peanut butter, the deer will lick it, get shocked, and avoid it thereafter. And the raccoons would have to climb over it to get on the trees. Now, I think that might actually work!

tree

Hatching Failures

Jennifer QuinnWhen I first started my chicken flock I assumed I’d use only broody hens for hatching chicks. I had read that this results in healthier chicks that are better foragers, as well as higher hatch rates. So why go to the expense and trouble of using an incubator? I later realized, though, that sometimes a broody hen won’t follow through and will abandon the eggs, leaving you stranded. Besides, I had hopes of eventually selling chicks, and I didn’t want to subject broody hens to the trauma of having their chicks taken away. So I decided to get one of those cheap Styrofoam incubators as a backup. As it turned out, this year brought several opportunities to use it, since — with my flock decimated — I was without broody hens when I needed them.

Back in April I wrote about my first attempt at using the incubator to hatch some eggs from my flock for a potential customer (“Not So Fast, Jennifer”). Having learned a little from my early mistakes, I expected things would go much better if the need arose again. I ordered two dozen Icelandic hatching eggs, to be shipped one dozen at a time, if and when I had broody hens. When no one had obliged by early May, I decided I’d better start a dozen in the incubator.

The instructions say to plug it into a GFCI outlet in a room where you don’t go in often, maintain the room temperature between 65 and 70 degrees, and keep it out of drafts. Well, the only places I had a GFCI outlet were in the bathroom and in the basement. At that point I knew the basement wouldn’t stay in that temperature range, so I opted for the bathroom. That seemed to be going OK until one unusually cool night when I inadvertently left the window open. It really was pretty drafty in there next morning, but the temperature indicator said “Temp OK.” So I hoped for the best, but in the end only one chick hatched and it was severely disabled.

Gail Damerow’s Barnyard in Your Backyard has a wonderful chart that shows what the embryo should look like on each day of the incubation period. So when I break any eggs that I’ve disposed of, or that don’t hatch, I compare them with the chart to see how far they’ve developed. As it turned out, the majority of the embryos seemed to have died at about the time the incubator was in the chilly draft.

By mid-June one of my hens had finally gone broody, so I put the second dozen eggs under her. She had been setting in the middle of the broody pen, but I added a nice nest box for her and moved her into it when I set the eggs under her. Imagine my dismay when, on the second day, I found she had moved back to her original spot, leaving all but one of the eggs to cool! Still, I put them all back under her and hoped for the best.

Now, the experts all advise candling the eggs (shining a light through them in total darkness to see what’s inside) partway through the incubation period, so as to get rid of any that have died or are infertile. This avoids the risk of having them explode and make a mess all over the other eggs, which can be fatal. Well, I thought I was getting pretty good at this, and I was anxious to do it since I feared the worst for all the eggs that had been left to cool. So I was relieved when I found at least five that definitely showed signs of life. Since I couldn’t see any in the others, I dutifully removed them. Next morning when I broke them, I found to my dismay that at least five seemed to have developed to that point! (I’ve since resolved not to dispose of any more eggs until I’m better at this.)

Since I ended up with only five chicks, I decided to see if I could get another dozen eggs and try one more time. My supplier was leery of shipping them so late in the season, lest they get too warm in transit, but I decided to risk it. Wouldn’t you know, this time there were two power outages during the incubation period? I’m sure those didn’t help, but as it turned out embryos died at all stages, and the one that hatched (after two days of trying!) was again a crippled mess. I guess I should have heeded the advice and cut my losses.

On the bright side, it looks like I have four new pullets, so maybe next year I can get by without the incubator.

chicken in nest box
Photo by Getty Images/georgeclerk

Rebuilding My Flock

Jennifer Quinn

Sandy with chicks

This has been a bad year for poultry at Panther’s Hollow, so I haven’t posted anything about my birds since late winter. After losing most of my flock to predators, I had high hopes of rebuilding it this year, but my three attempts at incubating eggs all failed. Incubating is trickier than I thought, but I’ll explain that in a separate post.

Fortunately, I managed to hatch five chicks around July 1 with the one hen that went broody this year. It probably would have been 10 if I hadn’t trashed five eggs after candling that, when I broke them, turned out to have normally developing embryos. Candling is another tricky business, but more about that later.

Meanwhile, my one really good pullet from last year — a terrific asset for my breeding flock — got picked off by a hawk one day. That left me with only one decent layer — a guinea hen, surprisingly, who faithfully laid an egg in the nest box almost every day. But one night my dear guinea hen simply would not go into the coop, but kept endlessly circling it, picking at this and that. I think she was suffering from mites, which I had neglected to keep after with timely applications of Diatomaceous Earth inside the coop.

After returning a couple of times after dark to try and coax her inside, I finally gave up. Not surprisingly, later in the evening something put her to a noisy chase, which ended with my finding only a mess of feathers near the house next morning. Since she was my last surviving guinea, I decided it was time to start over with four purchased guinea keets. Here they are in the doorway of my new poultry house. (I’m trying to train them to go in and out on their own, but at this point I have to lure them with food.)

Keets in doorway

I’ve taken some steps to reduce the predation problem, so I’m hoping things will go better from here on. First, I’ve converted a new, larger building for use as poultry housing that is nearer the house and probably more secure. Having two poultry houses will make it easier to separate age groups, so I can shut in the younger birds as soon as they come in for dinner. Last year I found that the younger birds would come in first to eat, then would run back outside while the older birds straggled in. Many of them would then decide to roost in the trees, where one or two would usually get picked off during the night.

To reduce that hazard, I prevailed on a friend with a chainsaw to remove the lower branches of the trees near the old coop, as well as some small trees near the new one.

All told, I’m now back to a dozen birds, chickens and guineas included, so by winter I should have something resembling a flock again. And it looks like four of my five young chickens are pullets, which is a big plus. Here they are at seven weeks, if you’ll pardon the blur. (It was the best I could do!)

Chicks at seven weeks

Raised Beds a Necessity

Jennifer QuinnI’ve written before about my experiments in hugelkultur building raised beds with rotting wood and other materials. I should now explain some of the rationale for this continuing effort. Due to the wet climate and a chronically high water table, the lower part of my garden has been plagued with two problems: compacted, waterlogged soil, and the prevalence of weeds such as slender rush—a plant that grows from rhizomes deep in the soil and is nearly impossible to get rid of. So for me, raised beds are a necessity.

Fortunately, another Scott County gardener, Anna Hess, has encountered a similar problem. In her book "The Ultimate Guide to Soil: The Real Dirt on Cultivating Crops, Compost, and a Healthier Home," Anna describes one method she has used to combat waterlogged soil. Drawing on the example of Central American chinampas, she digs trenches around the beds, piling the soil from the trenches on top of the existing soil, while allowing the water to fill the trenches. I decided to try this with one of my problem beds, along with a new hugelkultur mound that I started last year, as illustrated below.

Water-filled trenches

My plan was to seed the beds with mammoth red clover, which is supposed to aid in breaking up compacted soil, as well as supplying nitrogen. But initially I made a fatal error. I dug quite a bit of soil out of a drainage ditch that had become blocked where the water runs down out of the ravine, and I thought this would be a great source of topsoil for building my raised beds. Boy was I wrong! Only after adding the soil I realized what I had added was pure silt—a material that dried to a hard crust without a speck of organic matter in it.

Nevertheless, I attempted to pound some clover seed into this material and watered it several times a day, only to have a small amount of clover germinate, then die when I inadvertently let the soil dry out. That was when I hatched the plan to dig the chinampas, adding the soil from the ditches. This waterlogged, compacted soil was only slightly better than the silt from the ravine, but this time I also added an inch or two of almost-finished compost. I had already used up most of my mammoth red clover, but I took what was left, mixed it with crimson clover and buckwheat and reseeded the beds.

The germination was still very spotty in the hugelkultur mound, but the other bed is greening up nicely with the buckwheat, and I can see little clover seedlings in the shade of the buckwheat.

Another of my chronically waterlogged plots will become a lasagna bed for potatoes next year, after resting under a kill mulch this season. One strategy that I believe has helped here was planting water-loving boneset on the downhill side of this bed, which has grown spectacularly.

boneset in garden

And the last, very large problem bed, where an entire planting of seed potatoes rotted last year, will become my next hugelkultur project.

Repurposing an Old Structure

Jennifer Quinn

compost in shelter

After losing my geese a couple of months ago, I just shut up their shelter and didn’t go up there for quite a while, since it was up on a hill behind the house where I had no other reason to go.

The shelter was a chain-link enclosure to which I added a corrugated metal roof and covered the sides with tarps and clear plastic. There was already rat wire around the bottom when I inherited it, and I initially planned to house guinea fowl and maybe some chickens in there. But as it turned out, the rat wire didn’t prevent a raccoon and her young from getting the guineas, or chickens from sticking their necks out and getting killed. The enclosure worked fine as a night shelter for the geese, but I didn’t have an enclosed yard for them and they eventually fell prey to daytime coyote attacks.

Then one day I was up there and realized it was full of pine shavings and straw mixed with goose droppings, which would be a valuable addition to my compost. I had been thinking about a location for another compost pile, since I always have piles in different stages of breakdown. Suddenly I thought: Why don’t I just make a pile of this litter in here? It’s the perfect location, since it’s protected from the sun and rain, and I can build a pile without hauling this stuff off somewhere.

So here it is, and for the foreseeable future this structure will serve as a compost hut. The only drawback is that when I want to add new materials — like kitchen scraps, or litter removed from the chicken coop — I have to march it up the hill. But at least it’s only small amounts to carry. There’s plenty of room for turning the pile, and once it’s done I can just go up there when I need some. After a week or so it was already heating up.

Now, my dream is to have a couple of miniature goats to put in there, but on my current budget that just doesn’t seem possible. Maybe I should do a GoFundMe campaign?

A Hugelkultur Update

Jennifer Quinn

hugelkultur potatoes

A year ago last November I wrote about my first effort at hugelkultur — building raised beds with rotting wood and other materials. I had sown them with a fall green manure mix, then planted carrots and potatoes the following spring. This was a bit of a gamble, since the recommendation I read was to grow only grains the first year, then leafy vegetables, then maybe root crops and so on. So I was rushing it a bit and, not surprisingly, the potatoes turned out to be rather watery and tasteless. The carrots weren’t much good either, but then, my carrots never are.

This year my plan for the larger bed was to plant spinach and carrots (again!), following the spinach with beans. I decided to devote one of the tire planters to beets, and the other one mostly to parsley. Surprise! Almost as soon as the main crops began sprouting, so did a lot of volunteer potatoes. I don’t know if I fail to dig up all the potatoes or what, but I always have more potatoes coming up the following year.

Well, I love volunteers, and I had only a small plot dedicated to potatoes this year, so I let them grow. The great thing about volunteer potatoes is that you can start harvesting them in June. So I’ve harvested a few pounds already, and I must say the quality is quite good. The only problem I’ve had is lots of worm holes and some tunneling on the outside. I can’t find the worms, so I don’t know what the specific pest is. I suspect that all the holes and gaps created by the wood allow for more movement of insects, and possibly other pests, such as voles. I trust this will subside as the wood continues to break down. Meanwhile, the top several inches of the bed is an awesome, humusy soil that I’ve never imagined having in my garden.

The spinach, unfortunately, was a bust. Out of 20 seeds that I planted, only five produced seedlings, and only three of these yielded a halfway decent harvest. Perhaps there’s not enough nitrogen yet to support spinach. Also, something must have eaten the roots of a couple of the plants, since they just shriveled up. I didn’t want to go digging for the culprit, for fear of tearing things up too much, so I guess I'll never know. The carrots, on the other hand, were doing all right until a deer got in and ate the tops. Now I have a nice crop of beans coming along, plus a few volunteer parsnip seedlings (not sure how those got in there)!

As for the beets in the tire planter, most of them got buried when I started hilling up the potatoes, but the parsley is doing nicely around the edge of the other planter.

Last fall I started another hugelkultur bed that I plan to use for strawberries next year. I know, I’m pushing things again, but I just seeded it with Mammoth Red clover, and will follow that with a huge application of compost and hope for the best. And this fall I’ll be building another large one where I currently have rather poor, compacted soil. Eventually more than half my garden will be raised beds!