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Whitaker Gardens and Micro-Farm

Backyard Chickens For Fun And Eggs

Tobias WhitakerOur family homesteads on 1/16th of an acre in a sleepy village in southern New York State. We are nestled between Oneonta and Binghamton N.Y. Chickens play an important role on our micro-farm in regards to our effort for self-sufficiency.

Our Barred RockInitially, because space was limited, our main focus was on egg production. So our first hens were Leghorns. Though a Mediterranean breed they fared surprisingly well in our harsh New York winters. During peak production each of our Leghorns were easily laying 300 eggs a year.

As time wore on I found that raising chickens was far more valuable to me than simply how many eggs were produced. Simply put I enjoy being around them. It may sound kind of funny but at times it reminds me of watching a fish tank. The hens, even flighty leghorns, lull you into a state of calm while watching them peck and scratch at the dirt. Before I knew it I was on the lookout for other breeds.

I eventually brought home a Barred Rock and an Americauna to add to the small flock. I was lured to the barred rock because of a family trip I had taken a few years previous to the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown N.Y. They had a flock of free range Barred Rock and I was so impressed by their calm dispositionn, which was the exact opposite of the Leghorns, and their beautiful pattern. Those of you who know chickens realize that they are a great dual purpose bird being reasonably strong layers of nice brown eggs and decent size birds for the oven. I was attracted to the Americauna because of the potential for some colorful blue eggs and the fact that they seem to do well in confinement since our chickens have an enclosed run. 

For a short time each year we “hen sit” for friends who go out west for the winter and we add a Cochin, Tetra Tint and two Rhode Island reds to the mix. The Cochin is an old lady and does not lay at this point. But she is still very entertaining to watch as she waddles around with her wide stance. The Tetra Tint is an interesting chicken. It is a cross between a Rhode Island red and a leghorn. In fact it looks like the perfect combo of both parents. It lays enormous cream colored eggs. The Reds are similar to the barred rock in that they have long been a standard for dual purpose breeds.

Most recently in my quest for interesting additions to our flock I found and purchased two very rare pullets called Swedish Flower Hens. If you are interested in reading about them in detail you can go to Seed to Harvest. They are beautiful and friendly hens. They lay around 180-200 eggs a year but as I stated earlier as I have progressed in my chicken rearing I have come to realize that there is far more to this lifestyle than “production.” With that said I still keep some leghorns around to make up for the beauty queens!

Rural Music

Tobias WhitakerNow I know that for some folks when they hear the word, “banjo,” they immediately think of the movie Deliverance. For me personally, that is the furthest thing from my mind when I hear the melody of a five string banjo.

There are a number of well-known banjo players; some are even considered virtuosos. The great Earl Scruggs, Pete Seeger or June Carter all come to mind. Bela Fleck, Gillian Welch and Tony Trischka all know the pleasure a banjo brings. Though I have sincere respect for their contributions to the world of music, in general, what fascinates me most is the role the banjo continues to play in rural music for average musicians and their neighbors.

Few things are as enjoyable as a warm summer evening in which the crickets are singing along with a banjo. The cold winter months seem a little more bearable when the entire family can sing and dance to a little live music. In an age in which technology strives to rule there is still a simple and profound pleasure within the ability to pick up an instrument and play a few tunes on your front porch.

with my banjo 

In our neck of the woods we have the Vorshtein Music Festival, heading into its ninth year. Family and friends gather for a day of music and fun. It’s free to the public. Grandparents, parents and children all enjoy the wide open space of Mother Nature and listen to local musicians. If they are lucky enough they catch a little banjo as well.

Vorshtein Music Festival 

You see, a banjo is a working man or woman’s instrument. It is happy to have you pick it up with dirt under your nails and mud on your clothes just as long as you play a couple of chords with some feeling. It is an instrument that blends perfectly with the nasally harmonies of Mom and Pop as they sing old call-and-response tunes with just the one instrument on a knee.

and with my daughter 

You don’t need to be a musical genius to play, though some folks certainly are. It is not a rich man’s instrument; it belongs in small towns where neighbors still greet one another in the morning. Its song is from yesteryear but still sings about tomorrow. No one hears the word, “banjo” and thinks concrete jungle. They think about fields of corn and a job well done. Chickens and woodpiles by the shed, tractors and silos. They think about family together in song. They think of the simple things in life, the moments that can only be captured by the high pitched yodel of a five-string banjo.

I would like to leave you with one of my favorites, "So I Say Run" by Pine Siskin. Enjoy!

The Old Swimming Hole

Tobias WhitakerEveryone should be so lucky as to know a quiet space in the country where they can go swimming in the dog days of August. A tranquil spot few others know about where they can watch their children chase salamanders and crayfish in a cool, slow moving stream. A special place where they can lure minnows into their patient nets while ankle deep in the mud. The smooth surface of the old swimming hole only broken by skipping stones as Dad shows off the finer techniques of throwing a rock across the water’s surface. A trick he learned as a boy from his granddad near the white bridge creek that flows straight into the rock cut in Guilford. But you already knew that because he tells the same story every time you skip stones with him and you pretend to hear it for the first time, every time.

The Old Swimming Hole

Everyone should be so lucky to know a place where daisies and forget-me-not line the grassy bank intertwined with buttercups and purple clover while bees hover like zeppelins among the pollen and petals. Silence is the canvas for nature to spread her peacock plume of scent, sight and sound. A place where the humidity of late summer is gracefully removed by the breeze that delicately cuts through the beech and pine. A safe and comfortable location where even the youngest among us can explore while lying on a blanket spread under a crab apple tree, their brother and sisters laughing in the water.

The Old Swimming Hole

Everyone should be so lucky to know a place where woodpecker holes tattoo old tree trunks along the water’s edge. These same trees providing cover for squirrels that scamper to hide winter treats. A divine spot where the sun shines eternal and touches the core of our most pleasant self. A serene spot where Mom and Dad hold hands enjoying their children’s laughter as they discover grumpy bullfrogs relaxing in the shallows. A secret place where the song birds serenade from deep in the green foliage while insects snap and hiss in a meditative, relaxing hum. A place where you watch the water drift slowly from view to replenish the waterfall that feeds the old country swimming hole, generation after generation.

The Old Swimming Hole

Garlic Scape Pesto

Tobias WhitakerIn the month of June, garlic scapes are in abundance for those of us who grow the hard neck varieties of garlic. It is important to remove the scapes from the plant so its energy is used to produce a large bulb rather than the small bulbils that will form on the end of the scape. Some people simply toss their scapes into the compost pile, but there are some delicious alternatives. One such option is to make pesto. It has a little more bite than the standard basil pesto but is fantastic on a number of dishes, especially if you like garlic to begin with.

I would like to pass along a simple recipe for garlic pesto that my family enjoys. You will need the following ingredients;

1 pound garlic scapes
1 1/4 cups grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Ground black pepper to taste

Blend all ingredients in food processor until smooth enough to spread with knife.

Garlic Scape Pesto, a Whitaker family favorite 

Chances are this recipe will provide your family with far more pesto than they will be able to consume in one sitting. An easy way to store garlic scape pesto is to place the pesto in ice cube trays and freeze it. When you are preparing a meal, simply grab a cube and toss it on the stove and you are ready to go! 

Just one of the Whitaker family's garlic patches.

Just one of the Whitaker family's garlic patches.

Heirloom Seeds

Tobias WhitakerI have become obsessed with heirloom seeds over the past decade. I save them, trade them and read about them. Now it looks as though I write about them. Some seeds arrive with a rich history while others are shrouded in a bit of mystery. They produce delicious and unique plants, and I am always on the lookout for a lost gem.

For the beginner, heirlooms may seem a bit overwhelming. Some plants need to be separated from others such as sweet corn and popcorn. Others take a bit more work in order to save seed such as carrots or chard. So with that being said, I thought I would mention just a few seeds I have found through experience to be easy to grow and safe for the novice gardener.

Peas are one of the easiest heirlooms to collect.  

Peas are one of the easiest heirlooms to collect.

My first suggestion would be peas. Not only are they fairly easy to grow and considered a beneficial legume for soil maintenance, they are, in my opinion, one of the easiest vegetables to save seed from. Simply allow a portion of the earliest blooming pea pods to dry on the vine. Eventually toward the end of the season when the pod is dry and brittle, remove the dried peas from the pods. At this point I usually put them on cookie sheets under a ceiling fan for a few days just to make sure there is not an abundance of moisture, which in worst-case scenarios will cause mold. I store all my seeds in glass jars or envelopes in the back of my refrigerator until the next season. Just make sure you label all your seeds when storing them.

Beans are perfect for the novice as well. I use a similar technique to the peas. Allow them to dry on the vine and then remove the beans from the dry pod. There are a number of methods for removing seeds, but I prefer to do everything by hand. It may take a bit longer, but it is relaxing for me to spend the fleeting days of summer removing seed while I listen to the wind and the birds.

Beans are another great option for seed saving.

Beans are another great option for seed saving.

Lettuce seeds, though small and tedious, are easy to gather and store as well. Allow your healthiest plants to develop flower heads and when they dry pinch the feathery white head off the tip of the shoot. If you twist the dried flower head in your hand you will be surprised to find how many lettuce seeds are stored in each flower. 

These are just a couple of the easiest, in my opinion. There are a number of other vegetables that are suitable for the beginning heirloom collector. Tomatoes, squash and corn are reasonably easy, just to name a few. Eventually your confidence will grow, along with your seed collection, and you will find it easy to collect and store most seed.

Heirloom gardening is a fascinating world of history, land stewardship, and a belief in the future. Seeds are not only a commodity, they come in a wide variety of colors, shapes and sizes. They are a great foundation for responsible stewardship, and they open doors of conversation and potential trade between like-minded individuals. If stored properly after the initial purchase, they are a true money saver as well.

There are a number of great heirloom companies out there. I have used The Seed Savers Exchange and Fedco Seeds with great results. I have also traded seeds at my local library as part of a community seed swap. Another option is the Internet. I have been a member for years now of the Heirloom and Organic Seed Exchange on Facebook, which was started by Bonni Fellows.

The Benefits Of Rabbit Manure

Tobias WhitakerRabbits play an important role here at Whitaker Gardens. Though we are dipping our toes in the water as a potential meat source, they have been providing manure for our gardens for some time now. Years ago, my great-aunt made the suggestion that rabbits would be beneficial to our homestead for their manure. She had decades of experience and I took her advice without thinking twice. 

There are a number of benefits to keeping rabbits, but specifically I want to focus on their role in building up your soil. As we all know, your plants are only as healthy as your soil. In truth, when we fertilize a plot of land we are not feeding the plants but rather the millions of microbes in the soil.

Hazel, our buck.  

Hazel, our buck.

There are a number of nutrients that are important for healthy garden soil but the main three are N-P-K, or nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium. Nitrogen plays an important role in green growth. Phosphorus is vital for plant growth, think flowers and fruit here. It also plays a role in root growth. Potassium helps the plants create protein and sugars, which in turn help plants thrive and stay healthy.

Rabbit manure is loaded with all three. It has more nitrogen (N) than most animal manure including cow, horse and pig manure. Rabbit pellets are also higher in phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) than most other animals as well, containing more of these nutrients than chicken and sheep manure.

Rabbit droppings are also considered “cold manure,” which means that they do not necessarily have to be composted in the same manner as say chicken manure. While chicken manure will burn plants if not thoroughly composted for a year, rabbit manure can be placed directly in the garden. Some people do worry about pathogens from the rabbit manure and chose to compost, which is, of course, perfectly acceptable. Rabbit manure is also odorless for the most part. Their urine can be a problem if not properly managed, but the pellets are not going to alarm neighbors.

Rabbits are quiet, clean livestock for the small homestead.  

Rabbits are quiet, clean livestock for the small homestead.

During the winter, we change the bedding in our rabbit cages every three days or so. We take the soiled bedding and put it directly in the garden beds. By the time you can finally stick a shovel in the dirt in early spring, the manure is already breaking down into amazing compost.

Rabbits are easy to keep. They are ideal animals for urban homesteads and those of us with limited space. They are very clean animals. They are extremely quiet and they breed ... well, like rabbits. They can play an important role on your homestead if you allow them to.   

Successful Small Property Gardening

Tobias WhitakerFor the last decade my family has been growing food on 1/16th of an acre in a quiet rural village located near the beautiful Catskill Mountains. Due to the limited space we have had to be creative in our efforts and though we are flexible to change we have had to develop a long term plan as we progress year after year. I would like to pass along a couple of suggestions that have worked for my family here at Whitaker Gardens, Sidney, New York.

Garlic plays an important role in our diet.

In the beginning, our gardens were very experimental in regards to the items grown. Over the years, our focus narrowed to those items that we ate on a regular basis. Part of the approach was to save money, the other aspect being that our staple items were grown healthy and holistically.

We learned very early on the value of heirloom seeds in regards to cost and taste. Consider the price of a head of lettuce. In my neck of the woods it runs around $2 a head whereas a packet of lettuce seed cost around $3 for an heirloom variety. You can easily grow a few hundred heads of lettuce from seed if you have the room or desire. The math is rather obvious; by growing from seed you can grow plants for pennies on the dollar. This holds true on all crops – beans, tomatoes and corn just to name a few. Heirlooms tend to offer produce that have unique flavors and appearances, in turn making meals more interesting. In my opinion, one of the most cost-effective aspects of heirloom seeds is that you can save your own seed at the end of each season thus eradicating the cost of seed altogether if done properly.

With that said some plants may make more sense to buy from a greenhouse depending on your zone's growing conditions and length. For example some winter squash cut it awfully close to the first frost date here in Sidney so my family tends to buy winter squash starter plants rather than starting seed directly in hills.

Consider using heirloom seeds for greater variety.

Another section of our garden is for more established long-term growth. Items such as berry bushes and bramble, fruit trees and asparagus grow successfully in this section of our property. We have five blueberry bushes, a massive raspberry patch, blackberry bramble tucked along our property's boundary and close to 200 strawberry plants. We also have a peach tree and two apple trees. We will be adding more apple trees this spring thanks to a wonderful gift from our neighbors to celebrate the birth of our fourth child.

Berry Bramble makes a productive addition to the garden.

Raised beds are instrumental to our success as well. It provides us with a clearly defined growing area, which is important with pets and children. It also allows me to focus on particular patches of soil, thus feeding the dirt with compost and manure and not wasting any of the precious material. Personally, I find it easier to stay on top of crop rotation when it is mapped out with borders. Our corner of the world is very rocky, though the soil is lush and full of life. Rather than break my back and haul all the stones away I have decided to turn the stones into raised beds thus saving time and money. Plus I just like the way that they look.

Among all the vegetables, trees and bramble we also have patches of herbs for culinary purposes and for the bees. We grow flowers heavy in pollen among the beds to lure pollinators in among the edibles. We also leave indigenous plants year round to provide food and shelter for beneficial insects, which help the garden stay healthy and productive.