Saturday, March 31, 2012

our homestead: transplanting myself, tomatoes and Muscovy ducks

It has been a busy couple of weeks for me. For one, I've started a new job. I'm no longer managing the produce department at my local co-op and have been "transplanted" to work for a non-profit farming organization. This organization has an 18 acre working farm on site and its building is amazingly green: built with recycled concrete, a roof which is half solar panels and half sedum, radiant geothermal heated floors, composting toilets, motion sensor lighting, bio swails and rain gardens and the works. I'm their new Retail Manager and am in charge of setting up a store for them which will only sell food grown in Washington State. We will have  locally grown and raised produce, eggs, milk, cheese, butter, grains, herbs, tea and honey, and hopefully, a little later down the road as I work with vendors and we can afford more equipment, breads and pastas made with all-Washington grown ingredients, canned goods like jams and pickles, hard ciders, mead and small-farm, ethically raised meats. Our store is scheduled to open on Cinco de Mayo this year, so I've been calling all my farmers and searching high and low for new ones. I feel blessed that I'll be able to provide so many of my favorite producers with another location to sell at. Very exciting!
About to transplant my tomato starts out to the greenhouse
Anyhow, readying up my farm store is definitely not the only thing I've been working on lately. Over a St. Patrick's Day feast of corned beef and cabbage at our buddy's house, my husband and I mentioned how we'd just brought home a small troop of chicks and ducklings and were looking forward to raising our feathered flock for eggs. One of our friends in attendance mentioned that he had six full grown Muscovy ducks whom he was trying to find a home for since his new job required so much travel he would have trouble caring for them. Who can turn down a free duck? Especially when there's six of them! We told him we would gladly take them. I will get back to the tale of the Muscovy ducks shortly, but first I want to talk about my tomatoes. Interesting segway, I know, but the ducks are really cool, so I'll save them for last. 

Last week we had a stretch of sunny weather and our outdoor temperatures had been slowly rising to the not-so-dangerous-for-tomatoes-if-you-have-a-greenhouse-zone, so I decided it was time to get my tomato plants out to the greenhouse and off of my windowsills. The greenhouse had recently been occupied by a troop of Muscovy ducks, thus in the days before I was able to transplant my tomatoes, my husband and I had to do some double-time duck pen building with old wood we found on our property and chicken order to transplant the ducks. I bet the few days those ducks were living in greenhouse really amped up the soil nutrients in there. Before transplanting my tomatoes into their new home, I wanted to further amend their soil with all sorts of good stuff. 
A little blurry, here's Banjo hanging out by my Valentine's Day wheelbarrow
And here's why Banjo was hanging out by the wheelbarrow: juicy worm castings from kitchen scraps
I wheeled down the lower tubs of my worm bin to spread down my planting rows. This year, I decided to really put my back into it and build some killer raised beds for my tomatoes. I further loosened my soil (something I'd been working on ever so often over the winter), and scattered a healthy amount of the compost, as well as fish bone meal, oyster shell and whatever green alfalfa I had on hand. The compost and alfalfa will serve as a source of nitrogen for my starts, whereas the fish bone meal will give them a nice dose of phosphorous, and the oyster shell will give them some calcium. 
Check out these amendments 
I also sprinkled some "Root Zone" wherever I planned to plant a start. "Root Zone" is a pellet-sized supplement made up of Mycorrhizal Fungi, Trichoderma and helpful bacteria. 

These little guys will help my tomatoes by forming a symbiotic relationship with their roots. Part of the whole purpose of photosynthesis is to not only help a plant grow but to create sugars which plants will excrete into the soil to attract and support beneficial microbes through their roots. If their roots are colonized by the fungi and bacteria (also found in "Root Zone"), the plants will have an easier time absorbing water and nutrients from their surrounding soil because of the expansive fungal networks these little guys will build around their roots. Soil microbes can also absorb and digest certain nutrients that plant roots cannot directly absorb due to soil pH factors, and these microbes can make these nutrients available for their host plants. Mycorrhiza fungal networks can also protect roots from parasitic nematode attack. I'm not into tilling my soil for the very reason that I don't want to chop up my fungal networks and earthworms. 

After plumping up my soil with all these goodies, I started to build up my rows into wide hills, and then proceeded to plant each tomato start along the rows with about a foot or so between each plant. 
Two rows planted, and a third row in the process of being built up
Four rows planted, the one to the right is a "double row"
At the end of the day I'd planted four rows of tomato starts, with one row being "double wide" with plants staggered to fit. I planted one row of Evergreen tomatoes, three and a half rows of Pink Brandywine tomatoes, a half row of Cherry Falls cherry tomatoes and a row of yellow marigolds running down the left side wall of the greenhouse for fun and for some natural pest deterrence. I still have red bell pepper and melon starts to bring out later...I'm going to have to get creative with those. I might figure out a way I can dig two more rows running perpendicular to the tomato rows on the outer edges of the my greenhouse and perhaps I'll train my melons to either climb up twine or let them creep along the ground to shelter the shallow root systems of my tomatoes. I imagine my greenhouse will look like a jungle in July. 

And now onto the Muscovies! Our Muscovy ducks are awesome, I'm really, really excited about them! They are a really interesting breed because unlike most ducks, they are not related to Mallards. They originate from Central and South America and look like giant prehistoric turkey ducks. I bought a book on ducks yesterday and they referred to Muscovies as the "heavyweights" of ducks. So cool. The book also said that  in  1514, Spanish Conquistadors discovered that the people who inhabited what we now know as Columbia were raising Muscovies. Wild Muscovies can still be spotted in the jungles of the Americas.
Here are the Muscovies hanging out in their run, check out their view. 
That big guy to the right is the drake and the rest are his ladies
What a handsome guy
Check out their dinosaur feet complete with claws
One thing I find interesting about this breed is that they don't quack. The females make a bit of a whispery whistle sound and the male makes a non-threatening hiss. They also wag their tales and are supposed to enjoy roosting like chickens. Our drake is three years old and our females are a year old. We plan to raise our own Muscovy ducklings this year to sell and we're also looking into raising some for meat. Last night, I spent my evening reading about all the genetic crosses and colorings one can achieve through selective breeding with the Muscovies. As one can tell from the pictures, they are very colorful birds. It will be an interesting year. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

our homestead: meet my feather babies

One of my New Year's resolutions for this year was to start a small flock of chickens and ducks. When I found out that my local farm cenex was having a deal on chicks and brooding supplies this weekend, I decided it was time to bring home my dream flock. My cenex had lots of different chicks to choose from- about 10 galvanized tubs full of three breeds each.  I decided to adopt three Khaki Campbell ducklings, two Buff Orpington chicks and three Speckled Sussex chicks. It was really hard not to bring home more, but I thought that since this is my first year with fowl, I should start with a small group. I'm still telling myself this... especially since I plan to head back to the cenex today to pick up some seeding potatoes...and there's a strong chance I'll want to go see the chicks they have again. Be good Cat, be good! 

Anyway, my current feather babies are being kept nice and cozy in the basement bathroom, away from the dangers of curious kitties or playful puppies. I'll keep them sheltered inside until they've grown their true feathers, which will probably be in about a month or a month and a half.  For their brooding home, I'm using a large, round galvanized tub with a two inch layer of white pine shavings, and I'm keeping them nice and toasty with a red heating lamp hanging over head.. I also picked up a matching red and white feeder and waterer for them from the cenex. They are currently enjoying some fancy non-GMO, soy-free, locally produced starter feed from Scratch and Peck of Bellingham. Lucky birds! I'll introduce everyone to the varieties I chose:

Khaki Campbell
I love duck eggs! Duck eggs are usually larger than chicken eggs and are delicious. They are also very good for baking and are easier to digest for folks who have issues with chicken eggs. Ducks are also comical and love slugs! I really wanted to raise my own troop of ducks this year for their eggs, so I went with the Khaki Campbells. Khaki Campbells are prolific layers (whereas other varieties of ducks might lay eggs only once in a while) and originate from Gloucestershire, England. Their eggs are large and white. My ducklings should grow to weigh about 4 pounds with streamlined bodies. I look forward to watching these three sprint around the yard, and I plan on making them a little kiddy pool swimming area. My husband wants to name our ducks "Sammy", "Davis" and "Jr" (even if they are ladies). 
Buff Orpington
My Buff Orpington chicks originate from Orpington, Kent in the UK. They are supposed to have very mellow and friendly dispositions and grow to weigh between 7 and 10 pounds. They lay medium to large sized brown eggs. They are very round and fluffy with peachy feathers and are adapted to very cold weather. Orpingtons are supposed to be more docile, which is good since I foresee building my chickens either a movable chicken tractor or a stationary, fenced outdoor enclosure, as I am still on the fence about letting them be free range all of the time (since we have lots of dogs, feral cats, coyotes and raptor birds in our area). My current plan is to let my birds run the yard when I'm out with them and the dogs are inside. We'll see if that works.

Speckled Sussex
My Speckled Sussex chicks originate from (you guessed it) Sussex, England. They are supposed to grow between 7 and 10 pounds with spotted black and white feathers. As they age, their feathers become even more marked with white and gray. Like Orpingtons, Speckled Sussex are supposed to be mellow and friendly with a curious nature. Their eggs are medium to large in size and light tan. They are also very winter hardy. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

our homestead: getting impatient for spring

Bringing spring indoors: early flowers from the yard gracing my kitchen windowsill
This is the time of year I start getting really impatient for spring...almost like a kid counting down to Christmas. I long for the days when I can directly sow my vegetable and flower seeds outside without worrying about killing frosts. For when I can watch my little sprouts popping out of the ground instead of from flats on my windowsills. We just set our clocks an hour forward and the first official day of spring is only about a week away. Flowers are starting to open up around the daffodils and crocus, purple vinca and grape hyacinth. Last night we had a beautiful sunset with puffy white clouds and dusty blue skies. A warm glowing sun. Spring is so very close! I just wish it were here already.