Sunday Homestead Update

Happy Resurrection Sunday!  We had a fun but busy Holy Week.  On Friday, the kids and I did our traditional hot cross bun baking and delivered them to friends and family that live in our area.  It is always a fun way to spend our morning, and we love bringing joy and smiles to people (along with delicious treats).

I love the wild pasque flowers we have growing in our area.  When they pop their pretty purple heads up each spring it makes me smile.

Spring Cleaning

I don’t know about you, but our barn gets so messy over the winter that come spring I am very anxious to get it cleaned out.  I think it is because of the cold weather – we don’t exactly want to spend extra time out there tidying and freezing while we work – it is more about get out there, quickly take care of the critters, and get back in by the fire to warm up.  So things don’t get put away and the floor doesn’t get swept and it just builds up and gets cluttered and super dusty.  So this last week we decided it was time to spring clean the barn.

It took me and 3 of the kids about 2.5 hours to really get it done.  But it felt oh-so-good when it was done.

Then we laid cement pavers to finish the floor in the barn.  A few years ago the barn flooded and the wood floor that was in there had to be torn out.  We were able to put cement pavers down on half the floor but couldn’t afford to buy more at the time.  Then time went by as it always does and it just was left half pavers half dirt for a couple of years.  We finally got around to buying the rest of the pavers and laying them this week.  It is so much nicer than the dirt and will help keep the dust down!  You can see in the photo the line of old pavers vs the new ones.

And while we worked this cutie pie kept peeking at us over the stall wall.

Chickens

We now have chicks that are 8 weeks old, up in the barn.  We are beginning to be able to tell some of the boys from the girls.

We also have 7 chicks that were just moved from the brooder bin up to the barn.  They are about to be 4 weeks old.  It was a little early to move them, but the bin was way overcrowded.  We gave them two of the ecoglow 20s and are hoping they will handle the change well.

In this pic you can see the younger chicks in the forefront top pen, and the older chicks on the ground in the pen in the background.  The foreground pen is cleaned and ready to move some other chickens into it in the next week or so as we organize and shift around the birds for spring.

Even though that is plenty of chicks for the year, our most successful broody mama hen has decided she wants to set.  So we gave her 8 eggs and she is happily incubating them.

Garden

There are finally some green things poking out here are there around the farm!  This is 4 weeks later than last year.  So we are very happy to finally be seeing some tiny green.

Rhubarb

Chives

Strawberries

Gooseberry Bush

Garlic

My Valerian is sprouting too, but it looks like there may be a problem.  I have two plants.  One is sprouting green leaves, and one is sprouting purple leaves.  Last year was the first time I ever grew Valerian (these are 2nd year plants) so I don’t know much about them.  But from what I can find the purple leaf one probably has a deficiency or a root disease.

The seedlings in the basement under grow lights are doing well.

Sheep and Goat Flerd

We made our first batch of goat’s milk butter for the year!  It was yummy, and I always forget how white it is when we haven’t had it in awhile.

Rose is giving us some confusing pregnancy symptoms.  She is supposed to be 6 weeks out, but she is already showing symptoms that our other sheep don’t show until 2-3 weeks out.  It is her first pregnancy, and often first-time mamas will show symptoms a bit earlier…but we have never had one show signs this much earlier.  Could we be having lambs sooner than we thought?  We are keeping a close eye on her and time will tell.

With the nicer weather this week I have taken some time to sit and watch the barnyard.  Such a peaceful relaxing way to spend some time.  It is so nice to finally have some signs of spring popping up!

Sunday Homestead Update

Slow Spring and Sleepless Nights

Spring has been slow coming to us.  It has been colder overall than usual, though we have had some warmer days here and there.  The perennial plants haven’t started poking green out yet, and last year they were poking out the second week of March.  So it has been slow.  But we are preparing so that when it finally arrives we will be ready.

Despite the slow-to-come spring, the bears are awake and hungry.  They have been causing us sleepless nights because they keep trying to get into the dumpster and that causes Anya to bark (good dog!) which wakes us up and Mtn Man goes out and chases them off.  Thankfully they are just trying at the dumpster, not at the barn, or cars, or house, like they are doing in other places in our area.  We are so grateful to have Anya in the barn to keep them away from it and to alert us when they are on the property causing mischief.  And thankfully the replacement bear-proof dumpster we got a few weeks ago after a bear broke the last bear-proof dumpster is holding up against all their attempts.

Garden Prep Work

Most of the ground in the main veggie garden is thawed, so we spent Saturday working on preparing it for the upcoming garden season.  We did not do a good job of cleaning it up last fall.  Sometimes we do a really great job, other times…notsomuch.  This was a notsomuch year.  So there were a lot of leftover stalks and stems from last year, some weeds and moss that had grown during the fall, plus hard-packed, settled, and cracking soil, and the bean trellis needed to come down.

So we got all of that cleaned out.  Then we built up the newest deeper section.  Each year we are building one section of the raised beds up 7 inches higher because we found deeper boxes grow much better.  Here it is before and after the build up.

Once we built it up we filled it with compost from the barnyard.  We then added compost to the rest of the garden as well and got everything raked and loosened up and then smoothed out and ready for planting.

The metal stuff you are seeing in the boxes is our way of keeping the barn cats from using the fresh new garden soil as a litter box.  Once we plant and it is getting watered and such they leave it alone.  But when it is just sitting there and no one is out there working in the garden they tend to sneak in there.

All that is left now is to do some maintenance on the water drip system and get it ready for the season, but we can’t do that until May because there are still going to be a lot of below-freezing nights.

We also got the chicken wire around the base of the fence to the Apple Garden.  A bunny chewed a hole in the plastic mesh fence earlier this winter because we hadn’t gotten around to adding the wire yet.  It is in place now and will protect the medicinal herbs from the rabbits.

Dairy Goat

Pansy has settled in a lot more this week.  She is eating really well now and her milk production is going back up because of it.  She can often be seen laying with the flock of sheep chewing her cud, or running around with the dog (she is very dog-like in her personality and has bonded with Anya).  She still roams around looking for her goat friends some each day.  I am hopeful over time she will completely settle and wont do that anymore.

Sheep

As you saw in previous posts this week we have been shearing the sheep and skirting the fleece.  The skirted fleece are headed for the wash and I am really excited to see what kind of yarn Mtn Man makes with them.

We still need to shear Rose, and that will happen this week.

The sheep that got shorn look very different now, they went from big puff balls to seemingly scrawny looking things comparatively.

Knitting and Crochet

I finished the afghan I have been working on for almost a year now with sock yarn scraps!  I am very happy with how it turned out and have been enjoying cuddling under it on the chilly days this last week.

It was a fun use of scraps.  I still have a lot of scraps left and I am considering starting a different scrap afghan to use them up.

I spent the last two weeks crocheting to finish that and it left me very much burnt out on crochet and desperate to get knitting again.  I have two projects that have been sitting on the needles for over a year now, being worked on here and there put set aside when other projects came up.  I decided I really want to finish those two.  So that is what I am working on.  One is the swallowtail lace shawl:

The yarn is Greenwood Fiberworks Cashmere Delight and it is oh-so-soft and lovely to work with and have moving through my hands.

The second is the Let Go cardigan.  This is my second time using this pattern and I am doing it with a very different yarn than last time.  I am using KnitPicks Gloss DK yarn and it is also very soft and fun to work with.

I am really enjoying being back into knitting again.

Garden Journal

Whether you are a seasoned gardening veteran, or a rookie just getting started, keeping a gardening journal is very important for the productivity and efficiency of your garden.  Our gardening journal is half the reason why our garden continues to be more and more productive every year, last year landing us with about a pound of produce per square foot in our mixed vegetable garden.

What should be tracked in a garden journal?

I keep track of what varieties we planted, how many we planted, how many germinated, where we plant each plant (map), how much we harvested, what we spent on the garden, when I started each plant, when we harvested from each plant, weather and wildlife activity that effects the garden (specifically when the migrating swallows arrive and leave), notes about pests and disease for that year, and a general to-do list of what to do and when for garden maintenance.

I then use the information from previous years to plan the next year.  I can easily see which varieties performed best, which locations in the garden they liked best, whether I feel like I started them too early or too late, what changes need to be made to deal with disease or pests, how much we harvested per square foot of garden, how the weather effected the garden and any possible changes that need to be made because of that, and how much money we spent on average per pound of produce.

Your garden journal can just be a spiral notebook that you jot notes in as you go through the season, or it can be a store bought garden journal, or you can make your own on the computer.  Because of our cold-climate I was unable to find anything to purchase that would be right for our unique gardening situations, and a blank notebook just wasn’t organized enough for my brain.  So I created my own on the computer.  At first it was 8 1/2 x 11 inches, but that was just too big to be hauling around the garden all summer, so I made it half sheets (5 1/2 x 8 1/2) and put it in a half-size binder.  That works much better.

During the winter garden planning, I sit down and type in the new dates for the next year, the list of what to plant when, and the harvest list. I use previous years journals to decide if there need to be changes made to these lists.  After a few years of perfecting the journal I don’t need to do much each winter except change the dates for the new year because I leave the planting and harvesting dates from previous years experience.

Here is an example of pages in my garden journal:

There is a two-page spread for each week during the gardening season.  I have the date on the top left.  Since we plant based on last and first frost dates, I include that on the top right.

There is a box that has a list of what needs to be planted that week.  I type that in each year based on previous years success and failure.  After a few years of keeping the journal, those dates don’t change much because I figured out when worked best to plant what.  To the right of that box is a box where I write down what I actually planted that week.  It doesn’t always match what I was supposed to plant, for various reasons, specifically weather.  So I write what we actually planted in that section.

The next section down on the left is for tracking progress of plants.  This is where I write germination notes, or if something is doing poorly, or particularly well.  How things are progressing in the garden.  To the right of that is the To-Do/Misc. section.  It has notes on garden maintenance that needs to be done to help remind me.  I don’t usually write much in there, but if I do something that isn’t already typed in I jot it down.  I also keep track of garden effecting weather and swallow migration patterns in that section.

The bottom left is the list of what should be ready to harvest at that point.  Again, that section is pretty permanent and was created after I had journaled for our garden for a few years so I knew when each item was usually ready to harvest.  To the right on the bottom is where I write down what we actually harvested that week.  Sometimes it matches the ready to harvest box, sometimes it doesn’t.

Here is another picture of the journal from later in the season.

The journal also includes pages where I list what specific varieties we are planting that year, what we purchased and how much we spent, how much we harvested of each variety, how much we canned or froze, and seed saving notes.

If you haven’t started garden journaling yet I strongly suggest you start this year.  Even if you forget some, or start strong and then stop, having ANYTHING written down will help the next year.  You will be amazed at how keeping track of these things helps increase the efficiency and productivity of your garden.

High-Altitude Cold-Climate Gardening: Overcoming the Climate Challenges

This is our 5th and final post in this series.  Click these links to read the previous posts.

Introduction

Overcoming the Terrain

Overcoming Soil Challenges

Overcoming Wildlife Challenges

We have a very short growing season (about 77 days frost to frost) and the climate here is cold, dry, and windy.  Even in the summer we often go down into the 40Fs at night.  And we often get wind gusts up to 100 mph in the winter.  All these things present challenges to gardening, but we have found several successful ways to overcome them.

Dry Climate

Due to our dry climate, supplemental watering is an absolute must-have for the garden.  We have found that a drip system is the most economical way to go, and the plants seem to love it too.  I describe the system and installation in more detail in a previous post, which you can read by clicking here.

We also use rain collection barrels to help water our garden areas and save us on water bills.  If this is legal in your area, it is an excellent way to water your garden and takes advantage of what rain you do get.  We have purchased barrels, but they are so expensive that we prefer to make our own.  To read about how to make them click here.

Windy Climate

The wind mostly occurs in the fall/winter/spring, which are not big gardening times for us.  The way it effects the garden the most is by blowing away some of our soil each year, blowing away our mulch used to cover over-wintered plants, and wreaking havoc with our hoop tents and other season extenders.

As I discussed in the post about soil, we add a layer of compost to the entire garden each spring.  This helps make up for the soil loss from wind, and adds necessary nutrition to the garden soil.

We often use straw to help insulate plants that we are overwintering in the garden for second-year seed saving.  The wind will happily remove that straw for us, so we use bird netting over the straw and put rocks to hold down the corners of the bird netting.

As for the wind trying to blow away our hoop tents and other season extenders, we use clothespins to hold the fabric on, and we secure the end hoops to the wood of the raised beds when needed.  We also utilize long garden ground staples to help hold things down.

Short Growing Season and Cold Climate

One of the most important things we do to have a successful garden in such a cold climate with a short seasond is choosing the right varieties of veggies, ones that are suited for this climate and mature very quickly, and saving our own seeds from the plants that are successful in our garden.

Our favorite high-altitude cold-climate seed company is Seeds Trust.  We have had great success with the seeds we get from them.

Each garden is its own micro-climate, no matter if it is in a similar climate as another garden or not.  Because of this, saving seeds from your own garden is a great way to increase the success of your garden because you are saving from plants that have done well in your own little garden micro-climate.  Always save from the best, most productive, and most disease-resistant plants.  I also usually try to save from the first-ripening plants as long as they meet the previous standards, because with our short growing season I want plants that mature as fast as possible.  My favorite book on how to save seeds is The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds by Robert Gough and Cheryl Moore-Gough.

It is also important to choose vegetables that like cold weather.  If you fill your garden with all hot-loving veggies, you are not going to have much success.  Not that you can’t grow hot weather veggies, but they are going to take a lot more effort and maintenance and will likely not produce very well.  We have great success with beans (green beans and drying beans), beets, cabbage, celery, carrots, garlic, kale, leeks, lettuce, onions, peas, peppers, rhubarb, spinach, tomatoes, turnips, herbs, strawberries, gooseberries, and grapes.  We have had some success and some failure trying to grow cucumbers, pumpkins, winter squash, and zuccini.  We are continuing to try to find ways to make those successful.

We start some plants indoors and transplant them as seedlings, and some are direct planted into the garden.  We base our planting schedule based on the last frost, and the first frost.  We have tweaked this schedule based on our garden and how things work well in our garden.  It is a starting point for your garden, but not necessarily exactly right for your garden.  It is important to take good notes and journal your gardening experience year after year, using those notes to tweak your plans to increase the productivity of your garden year after year.

Start indoors (weeks before last frost):                            Plant seedlings outdoors:

Leeks (11 weeks)                                                               3 weeks before last frost

Asparagus (11 weeks)                                                       4 weeks before last frost

Cabbage (10 weeks)                                                         4 weeks before last frost (in hoop tent)

Celery (10 weeks)                                                             3 weeks before last frost

Onion seeds (10 weeks)                                                   4 weeks before last frost

Brussel Sprouts (8 weeks)                                                 3 weeks before last frost

Broccoli (8 weeks)                                                             3 weeks before last frost

Shelling Beans (4 weeks)                                                   After last frost

 

Direct Plant Outdoors (weeks before last frost):

Peas (6 weeks)

Spinach (6 weeks)

Lettuce (6 weeks)

Carrots (5 weeks)

Onion sets (6 weeks)

Beets (4 weeks)

Turnips (4 weeks)

Beets (4 weeks)

Turnips (4 weeks)

Shelling Beans (1 week)

Green, Yellow, and Purple Beans (after last frost)

Season Extenders

Someday we hope to have a greenhouse, and that will open a whole new world for us as far as gardening goes.  But for now, we use other season extending methods to grow the heat-loving veggies.

We are able to successfully grow tomatoes, peppers and herbs by finding ways to extend their growing season.  We start the seeds indoors 10 weeks before the last frost.  Then we transfer them outside into Wall-O-Waters 4 weeks before the last frost.  We have tried many different season extenders, but the WOWs have by far worked the best for us for heat loving veggies and herbs.  They are somewhat expensive, but if you take good care of them they will last for years and years.

It is important to fill the WOWs with water and set them in their locations at least 24 hours before planting in them.  They need that time for the water temperature to settle.  These WOWs are great for extending the season in the spring because they fit nicely over a small seedling.  But they wont help the tomatoes, peppers, and herbs come first frost in the fall.  To deal with that we harvest before the first frost, even when the veggies are not ripe yet, and we put them in our basement (60F degrees) to ripen.  At first we used to put them on tables in a single layer.

But this last fall we built some awesome root cellar racks to put them on, which saves us so much space.

To read more details on how we successfully grow tomatoes with such a short growing season and cold climate click here and here.

For the veggies that are a more cold tolerant, such as cabbage, beets, turnips, spinach, and lettuce, we are able to extend the season both in the spring and the fall by putting frost fabric hoop tents over them.  These tents also prevent pests.  We have minimal garden pests up here at high altitude, compared to warmer climates, but we do have some and these tents help a lot.

We use the all-purpose fabric, but by utilizing even heavier fabric, the season can be extended even farther.

 

The climate in the high-altitude Rockies can seem to make it impossible to garden successfully, but with some special care you can have success growing your own produce.

Overcoming Short Season, Cold, Dry, and Windy Climate:

  • Use a drip system for watering and take advantage of rain barrels if legal in your area.
  • Add compost to the garden each year to replace soil loss.
  • Use clothespins, bird netting, and long ground staples to hold down your hoop tents, season extenders, and overwintering straw.
  • Choose varieties made for your climate.
  • Save seeds from your own garden to increase productivity specific to your garden microclimate.
  • Plant vegetables that like cooler weather.
  • Utilize season extending methods to grow vegetables that like hot weather.  Specifically by starting indoors, using WOWs, harvesting before the first frost, and ripening indoors.

 

We have now discussed all the different ways we make our high-altitude, cold-climate garden a success.  There are a lot of issues to overcome, but when dealt with properly you can have a super-productive summer season garden that produces enough to feed you year-round.

High-Altitude Cold-Climate Gardening: Overcoming Wildlife Challenges

This is our 4th post in this series.  Click these links to read the previous posts.

Introduction

Overcoming the Terrain

Overcoming Soil Challenges

Now we will discuss wildlife.  Living in the high-altitude Rockies gives us plenty of beautiful wildlife to view.  Not a day goes by without some sort of wildlife moving through our property.  It is such a blessing.  But it also presents a challenge for our garden.  The specific critters that can cause problems in our garden are deer, elk, rabbits, rodents of all sizes and kinds, raccoons, and bears.

So let’s break it down into categories by animals.

Elk and Deer

Both elk and mule deer are prevalent in our area.  We have herds of up to 200, although most of the time the elk are in groups of about 20-30 and the deer are in groups of 5-7 when they come through the property.  They are happy to graze on anything and everything, from plants and veggies to berry bushes and fruit trees.  They also will rub their antlers on trees, sometimes aggressively, and can break and kill a small tree easily when they do.  And they are very acclimated to humans, so they don’t mind coming right up to the house and in human areas to get what they want to eat.  They are the biggest wildlife challenge we face in the garden.

The answer for these animals is easy – fencing.  Anything they like to eat MUST be inside of a 6 foot+ fence (they can jump 5 foot fences).  They don’t care much for onions and garlic, so we plant those outside of the fence.  And we have also gotten away with planting squash and pumpkins outside of the fence, as long as we keep a close eye on them as the fruit begins to ripen because elk and deer will happily eat a ripe squash or pumpkin.  But they wont eat the leaves and the plant itself.

Because we love the views up here and don’t want to have 6+ foot tall fences blocking our views everywhere, we chose what are sometimes referred to as “invisible fences.”  They are made of a black mesh that pretty much disappears from view when you back away from it and doesn’t take away from the beautiful mountain views.

Here is a picture of the garden area.  The far edges have the fence going along them, but you can’t barely see it there.  Click on the pic and examine it.  Look to the right side of the photo where there is a metal trough in the background…now look at the mountain to the left of that.  You can kind of see the black mesh, but it doesn’t really take away from anything.  And can you see those skinny black posts?  There is one right in the center back of the photo, in the back corner of the garden, and there is one to the left of it before the power pole.  Those are what hold the fencing up.

And speaking of those posts…they add another benefit to this type of fencing.  Living in the high-altitude Rockies means rocky terrain which makes it near impossible to dig fence post holes.  And even if you can dig one or two, by the time you get to the third you can’t get it dug where you want it and if you want to put it in you have to move it 2-3 feet right or left and you end up with a zigzag fence line.  The posts on this type of fencing are super-easy to install.  They come with receivers that you pound into the ground and then you just slide the post into the receiver.  The receivers are narrow enough that we haven’t had a problem getting a pretty straight fence in as we run into rocks during the process.

The fencing is 7 feet high, which is enough to keep the elk and deer from jumping it.  But there is a downfall to the black plastic mesh…

…rabbits and rodents can chew through it.  Which brings us to our next wildlife challenge.

Rabbits and Rodents

We have plenty of cottontail rabbits around, as well as mice, voles, moles, chipmunks, ground squirrels, gophers, grey squirrels, and pack rats.  Any and all of them would love to have a meal in our garden.

Our first line of defense against the rodents is the barn cats.  They keep the property pretty cleaned out of mice, chipmunks, ground squirrels, gophers, and pack rats.  But the cats are not allowed in the garden area, since they think the soil makes a perfect litterbox, so occasionally a rodent eludes them and makes it to the garden.  So we keep mouse traps set around the garden here and there to take care of that, and also a couple of the bigger rat traps set in carefully chosen locations to be sure the kids don’t get hurt by them.  Also, if we find that we have a visitor munching on the garden we look for tracks and signs of what size and type it is and we set live traps over night to catch them.

To keep the rabbits out we use chicken wire attached to the bottom foot of the plastic mesh fence and then buried out another foot from the fence.  This keeps them from chewing the mesh and also keeps them from being able to dig in too.  You can see it in this picture here.

The rabbits are also happy to squeeze under gates or in the gaps between the gate and the fence.  We use wood on the bottom part of the gates that closes all those gaps enough that rabbits can’t fit through.

Voles and moles have on occasion made their way into our garden beds.  We have tried many different traps and methods of dealing with them with no success.  The only way we have gotten rid of them is to let the barn cats into the garden at night and they have been able to catch them and kill them.  It does risk some damage to the garden in the process, but the moles and voles do a ton of damage themselves so it is worth it.  Thankfully, they rarely show up.

Raccoons and Bears

Thankfully, raccoons and bears have caused us very little trouble in our garden (the barn and coops are another story – but the gardens not so much).  We have never had a raccoon problem, but we know other people who have.  A live trap left out at night is a good option, but that always includes the risk of catching a skunk by accident.

We have had one bear try to munch on our squash, but apparently he was not happy with how unripe it was so he left it after chewing on it.

We are pretty lucky that the local bears are not very interested in garden fare, because there is very little that can be done to keep a bear out of the garden.  The 7-foot fences are a deterrent, but if a bear wanted to he could easily chew and rip through the fence.  If they posed a big problem we would likely invest in some electric fencing to keep them out.  But with kids running around the homestead, that is not an ideal scenario.  So far, we have not had to face this issue, and I hope it stays that way.

 

If you aren’t interested in sharing your garden produce with wildlife, proper fencing and trap management is a must-have for a high-altitude cold-climate garden.

Overcoming Wildlife Challenges in a High-Altitude Cold-Climate Garden:

  • Install 6+ foot high poly deer fence (invisible fence) around garden areas.
  • Use the type with pound-in receivers to make post installation easier in the rocky terrain.
  • Plant onions and garlic outside of fenced areas to make use of all fenced space for fruits and veggies that wildlife likes to eat.
  • Attach chicken wire to bottom 1.5 feet of fence and bury out from fence another 1.5 feet to keep rabbits out.  And reinforce the bottom of gates with wood that closes the gaps on each side of the gate.
  • Keep mouse and rat traps set inside the garden to catch rodents.  Be safe about where to put them to protect human gardeners from getting hurt.  Set specialty traps if you find you have a specific type of rodent visiting the garden.