A new toy for me!

soil blocker

This is my new gardening toy. It’s a soil block maker. Its made in England by a company called Ladbrooke.

You might be wondering at this point, “What is a soil blocker?” You use a soil blocker to make 2″ soil cubes to start your seeds in. You cram the 4 holes with wet potting mix, then push down on the handle and out pops 4 perfect little squares of soil. There’s several different sizes, and many of them will nest inside each other, for “potting up” your seedlings. But for me, I chose the basic 2″ size to start with. It seems the most versatile. I can always buy other sizes later, if I really like this method.

What’s the point of a soil blocker? Well, there’s several supposed advantages:

  • You don’t have to clean and store hundreds of plastic pots and cell packs anymore.
  • The soil blocks are just 2″, yet are supposedly equivalent to using regular 4″ pots, because the soil is compressed, so your starts take up less room under the grow lights.
  • Your seedlings do not get root bound, because the roots stop growing when they touch air (“air-pruning” its called).
  • They are easier to plant out into the garden, because you don’t have to wrestle them out of pots. Its more like serving pieces of cake from a 9×13 pan. And because they aren’t root bound, there’s a lot less problems with shock when you plant them out.

On the disadvantage side, there is extra time and patience involved. There is a learning curve to getting the mix of water and materials to the right consistency and cranking out the blocks into the flat. Also, you pretty much have to mix up your own potting mix to use with them.  For me, I might actually save money by mixing my own potting soil, rather than buying several bags of pre-made mix, so it might be worth the extra time it takes to mix it up.

I’ll keep you posted about how this works as I start my first seeds.

Did you get any new gardening “toys” for Christmas this year? Have you ever tried a soil block maker before?

-Susan

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Dreams of gardening

While I was asleep last night, my mind wandered into a neighbor’s backyard. This neighbor had already planted out his garden, and the squashes were so well established that they had huge pumpkins on them already. I was totally floored (this being only January, after all ) and it made me feel so behind, since I haven’t even started my first seed yet.

It was lot like the anxiety dreams people have where they are late for class, didn’t have their homework, or are otherwise unprepared. I have dreams all the time about being one class short of graduating college, but this is the first time I’ve had this type of dream applied to a garden setting.

So when I got up this morning I had this anxious/restless energy. It is almost the end of January. Seed starting time is just around the corner. I feel unprepared!

Have you started any seeds yet? Do you ever have anxiety dreams about gardening?

-Susan

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The six-sided softie strikes again!

I just finished two projects in the last week using my favorite go-to gift: the six sided ball. Last year I shared with you the Angry birds game version and a Harry Potter golden snitch version that I had made for gifts.

This time I took on Star Wars for my nephew who loves Angry Birds Star Wars, and a autumnal pumpkin version for my son’s school Halloween party.

The Star Wars version turned out pretty good. I made OB 1, Princess Leia, Chewie, Han, and Luke, Darth, a storm trooper, and green pig.

The good guys:

angry birds star wars softies

The bad guys:

DSC_0284

I bought a stuffed animal at the thrift store to get Chewie’s fur, but the rest of the materials were polyester fleece and felt that I already had in my fabric stash. It took me somewhere in the range of 6-8 hours to get these made, from digging through my fabric stash, to cutting out all the pieces and hand sewing them on, to stuffing and closing them up. I’m still not sure how well I sewed up Chewie. I’ve never sewn with fake fur and it’s really hard to tell what you’re doing when you can’t see anything but hair.

The pumpkins were a quick last minute project I made for my son’s class. I had some leftover orange fleece from my son’s costume (he was a red-eyed tree frog this year). My son helped cut some of the shapes for the eyes and noses. It probably took me about 3 1/2 hours from start to finish to make 10 of these. It would have been even faster if I hadn’t been interrupted several times.

pumpkin softie

I love the ease and versatility of the six-sided ball. I’ve had a request for yet another version for a friend’s kids for Christmas. I’ll be sure to share them in a post when I get them completed.

Have been thinking about gifts to make for Christmas? What are some of your favorite handmade gifts you’ve made in the past?

-Susan

 

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Preserving the harvest 2013

As the garden winds down, the freezer and pantry shelves are filling up. Here’s what I have “put by” so far this year:

10 quarts peaches

2 dozen pints pizza/pasta sauce

about 6 dozen ice cube sized portions of pesto

about 6 bags frozen bell peppers

about 4 bags frozen green beans

1 bag frozen peas

1 bag frozen apricots

10 pints apricot pineapple jam

2 bags frozen blackberries

2 pints dried basil

20 quarts chili, frozen

1 bag sun dried tomatoes

2 bags frozen shredded zucchini

I am pretty much out of freezer space at this point. I still have a box of bell peppers and over 100 lbs of tomatoes to do something with. I already wrote down in my garden notebook: PLANT LESS TOMATOES NEXT YEAR!!! But that doesn’t really solve the problem of what to do with the basement to ripen over time. We try to be able to still have 1 or 2 to put on a salad for Christmas dinner. Some years it happens, some it doesn’t.

harvesting tomatoes

I’d like to make some sort of tomato based soup and freeze it, so that its a quick dinner later in the winter. My husband is not a big fan of the carrot tomato soup that I love. Anyone else have an idea?

I don't normally store pears on the windowsill, but I liked the sunlight shining though the fruit for taking a picture

Apples and pears are still on my To Do list for preserving, but other than that, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve already completed. It’s not a highly varied list, but it is all things I know that we eat, and it’s all food that we grew ourselves or sourced locally (peaches, blackberries).

At this point, I feel like the way to go is to learn how to overwinter crops or otherwise “extend the harvest”, rather than find more ways to freeze or dehydrate. (My bulging freezer heartily agrees.)  Even though my fall crops got eaten by grasshoppers this year, I know that if I just spread some spinach, kale, and lettuce seeds outside right now, they will be the first things to grow in the spring. I have done this already, and it works! Maybe next year I will finally get the knack of fall planting/overwintering.

Do you have a fall garden? Are you able to overwinter any crops successfully? Please share in the comments section. I’d love to hear about it.

-Susan

 

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Hello again

I haven’t written here in several months. Time and schedules got away from me, and the longer I stayed away from the space, the harder it was to come back. I have that problem where if I can’t do something exactly how I want, then I avoid doing it all together. I don’t have time to be as perfect with my writing and photographs as I would like, but I feel like I have so much I want to share that I have to just get started on something again.  So here I am, just jumping right back in and starting to write again, even if its not to the highest standard of blogging perfection.

I thought I would start by updating you with what’s been happening in the garden lately.

I’ve been doing final harvesting of many of my vegetable garden plants this week. We’ve had some nights in the 30s, but not a hard frost yet. Still, the cold is imminent, so I am pulling out plants and putting the garden to bed, little by little.

Already harvested: basil, peppers, squash, onions, garlic, dried beans

In progress: green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers

Yet to do: carrots, potatoes, apples, pears, other herbs, broccoli, kale.

After I harvest the food, my husband runs over the plants with the lawn mower to chop it into bits before transferring to the compost bin. This makes a HUGE difference in the time it takes for the plant matter to break down. I’ll be cleaning out the chicken coop this week as well, and adding the straw/poop mixture to the compost bin as well.

This is the time of year when I reflect on my garden success and failures, and try to jot down ideas for next year, before I forget them. I know that in February I will be scratching my head, wondering “Did I want to plant less or more tomatoes this year?” and “Which varieties of green beans did I like the best?” and the like. So anything I force myself to put into writing now will be a big help in 5 months. I just have to find the time to sit down and do it.

Time always seems to be the limiting factor in life, doesn’t it? I feel like I could always use a little more time. Time to garden, time to be present with my children, time to clean house, time to create, time to enjoy a cup of tea. As my children grow up little by little, I often say to myself “This will be easier next year. I’ll have more time when they’re out of this stage.” But I’m starting to learn that that never really happens. There is no such thing as more time, let alone enough time.

Before I digress any further, I’ll wrap up this post by saying thanks for taking the time to stop by today. I hope you had a lovely fall weekend.

-Susan

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Chicken chat

Can you hear that? That’s the Eye of the Tiger thumping in the background. Its playing for Debbie, the spunky Red Star chick, because she is alive this morning. Also on the play list: I Will Survive, Alive and Kicking, and We are the Champions.

I was ecstatic to see Debbie not only alive, but actually acting a lot more like her usual chicken self this morning. For the last several days, I had noticed a general decline in her activity level (she hardly moved when put outside to peck around and enjoy the sun). She also has developed this weird posture, drawing her head down into her shoulders (or whatever chickens have that are like shoulders) so she looked neck-less, while puffing out her feathers, and drooping her tail.

Last night after putting the chickens to bed, I realized that Debbie felt extremely light, like she had the body mass of a week old chick on the frame of an 8 week old chick. So I poked around on the Internet and diagnosed her as suffering from the dreaded Coccidiosis. I don’t want to bore you with details, but its really common for chicks to get it, which is why I feed them a medicated feed at this age. Its also really easy for them to die from it, and spread it to the other chickens.

One important thing I learned last night is that if the chick makes it to day 6 with the disease and hasn’t died, that she’ll probably survive. I couldn’t know for sure how long Debbie had been suffering, but I was pretty sure if she made it through the night last night, she’d be over the hurdle and on her way to recovery.

And she is. She is eating, and starting to move and peck, and open her eyes and look around again. I hope she gains weight fast, because she is just a pokey, bony frame covered in feathers right now.

Now I will be watching the other chicks to see if they get sick. They are just about to surpass the 8 week-old threshold where the danger of getting sick and dying from Coccidiosis is highest.

DSC_0401

(She is still doing her hunched neck thing in this photo, but I assure you she is doing much better this morning. That’s Jack watching over her on the right.)

The gardener’s market opens on Saturday (finally!), and I have plans to plant potatoes, carrots, and beets this weekend. The baby chickens are also going to get transitioned to their new outside run. What plans do you have this weekend? I hope you can get out and enjoy some beautiful weather.

-Susan

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Six Chicks

We have six new chicks (currently in our basement bathroom) to replace our 6 older laying hens in the backyard. We got the chicks when they were a day old from a local feed store back in March. This will be our 3rd group of chickens that we’ve raised and kept in the backyard for laying eggs. I’ll be writing future posts about how I manage my backyard flock, but here’s a little introduction to the new chicks on the block. (Sorry the lighting is odd, but the red glow from the heat lamp really makes it hard to get good lighting for a photo shoot)

chicken brooder in shower

baby chicks
Young chicks: Lucy, Spot, Goldie, Mr. No Name
baby chicks
Entering the awkward “teenage” age with both feathers and fluff

The breeds this time around are:

Barred Rock (two) “Lucy” “Jack”

Rhode Island Red (two) “Spot” “Mr. No Name”

Gold Star/Golden Sex Link (one) “Goldie”

Red Star/Red Sex Link (one) “Debbie”

Those names in quotes are our nicknames for the chickens. In the past we haven’t named out chickens so we don’t get too attached to them, but with my young son being a active participant in raising this batch, the names just sort of happened.

His favorite by far is Goldie, the Golden Star, white bright white wing feathers. She’s the first to fly out of the brooder, and she’s super tolerant of being carried all over the place with my son. She’s the biggest of the group, and a real flyer.

goldie

DSC_0342

goldie

My favorite is Lucy, the lighter of the two black and white speckled Barred Rocks. Also eager to fly, she’s usually the second one out of the brooder when we lift off the lid. She has some sores on her feet that I’ve been keeping an eye on. I think she’s getting pecked by the other chickens. She likes to sit on my lap.

Jack (Barred Rock) and Debbie (Red Star) are also really outgoing and love to fly around the basement bathroom. The two Rhode Island Reds, Spot and Mr. No Name, are more reserved and shy and sometimes don’t come out of the brooder without being lifted.

For now their home is a hodgepodge of cardboard boxes filled with newspaper and wood shavings. They have food, water, a heat lamp, and daily exercise playing with my son. As soon as we feel a bit more confident about the weather, we will graduate them to the garage, and then finally an outside house (separated from the big girls until much later in the summer).

-Susan

 

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Catch up

I’m behind in my posts here because we’ve had a string of illnesses and spring break vacation keeping us busy the past several weeks. Here’s a quick catch-up about how things are growing/going around here.

We had our first daffodil bloom this week.

daffodil

I planted most of the peas and onions out.

onion starts

I didn’t take many pictures, because I was trying really hard to get as much done as possible while the kids were sleeping or being taken care of by Mr. Dig. If you want to see more about onions and peas, last year I talked about planting onions here and here. I show what pea planting looks like here.

Planting onions and peas also means means I’ve finally committed to this year’s garden layout. Its always a tough decision, figuring out how to best rotate crops among my raised beds, when over 50% of what I grow is in the same family (tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes- I love those nightshades!). Here’s a sketch of what things will look like this year:

garden layout 2013

The grow light stand is brimming with plants. I transplanted my tomato seedlings into separate containers just yesterday. I had really good germination rates and I have too many tomato starts. Hopefully I will be able to sell my extras to friends and neighbors this year.

grow light stand

The peppers have been germinating so slowly. The purple bell peppers are by far the slowest. They are just barely emerging now, while others have been up for weeks.

slow bell peper germination

I’m happy that all of the herbs have survived thus far-sage, oregano, rosemary, lavender, thyme, lemon balm, chamomile, mint are all alive and happy under the grow lights.

herbs

That flat on the right is all basil, doing really, really well and just about ready for the first harvest. I have an entire second flat of basil, all planted in recycled yogurt cups, that I plan to sell.

And finally, this year’s first load of firewood is piled in the driveway. Some of it came from a neighbor’s tree, and some came from the city landfill. It seemed a little silly to be thinking of firewood over the weekend with 60 degree temperatures, but this morning it doesn’t seem silly at all. We’ve got an inch and a half of snow on the ground, and cold, blustery winds with temps below freezing. Brrrrr

firewood

I’ve got a cozy fire going, and tea is steeping as I write this. Its just another typical spring day here in Cache Valley.

-Susan

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The seeds’ progress

Two shelves of the grow light stand are full already, and its only mid-March!

grow light stand (If you want to build one of these beauties for yourself, read more about it here. Ours cost less than $10.)

Overall I’m a few days behind last year on a few items, but mostly on track. This is what has been been planted thus far:

March 16th: Tomatoes

  • Paste-Roma, Classica, Amish, Cordova
  • Slicing-Oregon Spring, Moscow, Early Girl, Big Beef, Better Boy, Burbank, Jetsetter, Brandywine
  • Salad:Red Cherry, Sunsugar Cherry, Sugar Plum Grape, Yellow pear

March 8th: Peppers and greens

  • Hot-Jalapeno, Cayenne
  • Bell Shaped: Yellow Sunsation, Purple Beauty, Orange, California Wonder, Creme Brulee, IKO IKO
  • Other: Gypsy (light yellow green, long and sweet), Yum Yum (small orange snack pepper)
  • Another round of greenies: Lettuce Mix, Falco Spinach, Dinosaur Kale, Red Russian Kale, Blue Dwarf Kale, Basil

February 23rd: Soil experiment

  • Lemon Balm
  • Dinosaur Kale
  • Falco Spinach

February 18th: The first round

  • Kale-Red Russian
  • Kale-Blue Dwarf
  • Lettuce Mix
  • Spinach-Correnta
  • Spinach-Bloomsdale
  • Broccoli-Packman
  • Basil
  • Sage
  • Oregano
  • Thyme
  • Mint
  • Chamomile
  • Lavender
  • Giant Swiss Pansies (a bust- not really germinating)

I won’t plant much else until April now. But I will be transplanting peppers and tomatoes into bigger containers, and hardening off things like broccoli, kale, spinach, and lettuce to be planted outside. Also, its time for onions (read about last year’s planting here and here) and peas to go out directly in the ground in the next week or two.

seedlings

(Here’s a post about how I take care of my seedlings on the grow light stand, if you are looking for tips).

How are your seeds doing so far? Are you planting anything outside yet?

-Susan

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Seed starting mix vs potting soil – Part 2

The results from my soil experiment are in. It’s a real head-scratcher.

soil experiment results

(seed starting mix left, potting soil right)

Kale: The Kale in both seed mix and potting soil germinated the same day, and grew at the same rate for a week. After two weeks of growth, the seed mix kale is far outpacing the potting soil. Winner: Seed starter mix

Spinach: None of the seed mix spinach germinated at all. Four out of 6 seeds germinated in potting soil. Winner: Potting soil

Lemon Balm: No lemon balm germinated in either soil mix at all. I think this is because I failed to score the seed coat properly, but I’m not really sure. Winner: no one

Final Score: Potting soil – 1, Seed starter – 1

So there’s no definite winner here, and I don’t feel like I really know why I got the results I did. I thought I did a great job making conditions the same for both cell packs of seeds, but maybe it wasn’t equal. Maybe some seeds do better in seed starter mix, and others do better in potting soil. I’m going to think about this a bit and retry my experiment again soon. If you have any ideas/input about how I should go about my next trial, please let me know in the comments section.

-Susan

Update: Please also check out my previous post on the topic Seed starting mix vs. potting soil as well as my more recent post More thoughts on potting soil vs seed starting soil

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