Winter is Coming

The seasons are shifting. The air has a beautiful coolness about it after the oppressing heat of summer on the plains. We are loving it. It has reinvigorated us to get projects done and be outdoors.

The farm is in such a better place than it was a year ago. We moved to the new farm in June of last year and worked tirelessly, regardless of the triple-digit weather, all summer and through the fall, which was unseasonably warm and long (a blessing because we had so much to complete), so we could try to get humans and animals somewhat acceptably set up for winter. And we did get everyone acceptably set up. But there were definite areas that were lacking and that made caring for the animals through the winter cold and into and through birthing season harder.

The projects we have been able to accomplish this summer and fall have us heading into this second winter at the new farm in a much better place as far as human and animal housing goes. It should make for less work and everyone living more comfortably through the cold. We have two more small barn areas closed in for the sheep and goats that will be nice during storms and also serve us well during lambing/kidding. We have improved the poultry housing and built another “wing” on the poultry palace (another coop attached to the poultry barn) that is giving us a lot more options as we have young chickens and turkeys growing out and have increased our breeding flocks. And we have more hay storage areas to keep the hay protected from the wet weather.

We only have a few more things to accomplish before winter really sets in, which is still a month or so away, depending on what the weather does. Our first frost should be along here within the next couple of weeks. We are keeping an eye on the forecast, so we can bring in all the green tomatoes that are still on the vines to let them ripen in the root cellar. We also still have several cantaloupe in the garden and a butternut squash. The rest are done.

We have a small box planted with some late fall/winter plants that we plan to cover with a tent. But they didn’t sprout as well as we had hoped, so there isn’t much for season extending this year. It is not surprising, really. I have heard from gardeners from Canada, Colorado (High Plains and Front Range), Kansas, and Georgia – all who are experienced and have been in their location, gardening, for many years. And all of them are saying the same thing. This was one of the worst years for their garden. Since this was our first experience gardening in the High Plains, and we did straw bales instead of soil, I am really glad that we were able to harvest anything at all, especially considering what all these “old timers” are saying.

One of the projects we are trying to get done before winter hits is building the new garden. The straw bales are breaking down beautifully, and will provide an excellent base layer for the garden. The centers of the bales are so decomposed, in fact, that the bailing twine is suspended up in the air across from end to end.

We plan to put our farm compost on top of it. Over time it will compost more in the garden. Garden soil is like wine – it gets better with age. Our garden at our last homestead took at least 4 seasons before I felt the soil was getting good, and by the 9th season it was a thing of beauty. Some things just take time.

Another big project is putting up our firewood for winter. With prices soaring everywhere for everything, including propane and electricity, we are even more intent on being able to use the wood stove as much as possible to heat our home. We have started the process of putting up firewood, but still have a ways to go.

We are saving the long list of indoor projects for over the winter, and working outside as much as possible while the beautiful autumn weather holds.

Garden Firsts

After having gardened for over 17 years now, it is strange to be experiencing so many new things in the garden. But the climate at the new farm has been so very different than our previous farm that we are having many experiences in our gardening that are firsts for us.

We harvested our first ever watermelon this week!

It was a little bit under-ripe, but we are learning how to tell when they are ready. It was still delicious and felt like a celebration. We have another watermelon and several cantaloupe coming on. Melons! We have never successfully grown melons before.

We also have harvested several pumpkins and a spaghetti squash as well. It is our first spaghetti squash ever. We did grow some pumpkins when we lived in the mountains, but they were few and far between and very small. These were small, but there were several and they were ready much earlier than we are used to. We struggled to get cucumbers to grow in the mountains, but here they are very happy.

When we lived in the Rockies we would harvest maybe 5 tomatoes ripe off the plants, but pretty much all our tomatoes had to come inside green due to the early frosts. We would let them ripen in the basement through the fall. At the new farm we are picking tomatoes from the plants every couple of days and have been for almost a month now! The water-bath canner has been busy canning up all the tomatoes!

As you can see, all these firsts have to do with a warmer climate and plants that like warmer climates. The high Rockies was a cold place to garden, and our harvest reflected that. Our new climate is hot, and it is fun to be learning new veggies and having new experiences due to that.

We are also continuing to build the raised beds for next years’ garden. We are doing them one at a time as the space in the straw bale garden opens up because of harvest. Here you can see our most recent box. We are building them from 4x4s and pallet wood. We cut slots in the 4x4s and slide the pallet wood down into the slots. This is cutting our costs by a ton. We will be breaking up the spent straw bales to create the bottom layer of compost for the boxes. At this point we just kind of tossed them in there.

High Plains Garden Update Part 2 – Soil Gardens

I shared our experience thus far with our straw bale garden in Part 1 of our High Plains Garden Update. Now, I will share about all the gardens we have going that are soil based.

Container Garden

When we moved here we brought our container herb garden with us, and expanded it with old troughs, wheelbarrows and such that we found around the property. The container garden is mostly kitchen and medicinal herbs, plus rhubarb, strawberries, and peas. There were a few established plants that survived from last year – comfrey, chives, and rhubarb. The rest were new seedlings I planted in the containers this year in hopes to get them established and have them come back year after year. We also got a couple more rhubarb this year, and we planted 28 strawberry plants. The spring wind events I discussed in Part 1 took their toll on the established plants as they started to come up, and also killed all but 3 of the strawberries we planted. But eventually the established plants pulled through and are doing well now.

I waited until the weather turned nice to move any of the seedlings out into the containers, so they all did well and took off nicely. They were small, but growing.

That is, until the grasshoppers came. They began to devour the basil and sage, the marigolds and some of the rhubarb leaves. We have tented the containers against them, and it is definitely helping, though some still manage to get in. It is not as fun to have a garden covered in tents, because you can’t see it and enjoy it. But we want to help the plants survive, especially the perennials. So we are glad to have the tents.

Medicinal Herb Garden

The medicinal herb garden is a raised landscape area that was here when we moved in. We fixed it up and amended the soil as best as we could with what we were working with. We planted an apple tree in the middle of it, that was gifted to us by a friend. Then we planted comfrey and strawberries around the tree, and several medicinal herbs in the other section of the garden. Last fall we planted garlic all around the edge, and we put a few extra onions in there as well.

The wind this spring killed the tree…or so we thought. We didn’t pull it out and now it does have some little sprouts close to the ground, so we have left it and haven’t gotten around to deciding what to do with it. The garlic and onions did very well and have been harvested. Some strawberries died, but many survived and have been growing well – same story for the comfrey. Both are first year plants, so we are not really harvesting anything, just trying to get them established. We did let the strawberries send out one runner each, to make up for the lost plants.

We had cutworms attack the calendula, but with some paper tubes around the bases we were able to save some of them. There have also been grasshoppers working on this garden, though not as bad as they are over in the container garden. And mealy worms are doing some damage as well. Besides calendula, we also have chamomile, lemon balm, mint, valerian, lavender, thyme, and oregano in this garden. We are happy with the progress and have been harvesting lightly since it is the first year for this garden and we really want all these plants to get established well to continue to come back year after year.

Cold Frame

We built a cold frame in early spring and filled it with compost, topped with soil from the store. We had a lot of trouble with germination, which we have seen across all the gardens this year that got the store-bought soil. We definitely think it has to do with that soil and we are planning to avoid it in the future.

We did get a few things to sprout, and also transferred some plants from indoors into the cold frame. At first I was manually opening and closing the cold frame each day to be sure it didn’t get too hot or too cold. But on days that no one was around, that became tricky because the mornings in the spring were too cold to open it before leaving, but then by noon it got too hot in the frame if we were not there to open it. So we bought and attached a temperature driven hinge to it that would open and close it based on the temperature. We thought that would be a great idea. Try as we might, we could not get the special hinge to work properly. At times it was 120F in there because it didn’t open, and then it wouldn’t close at other times and it got down to 30F on the cold spring evenings. Needless to say, what plants we did have in there were all eventually killed. We tweaked it and tried to fix it many times and eventually gave up in our frustration. I don’t know if it was the brand we got or what, but it was very frustrating.

Once the last frost passed, I decided to plant some beans in there, to use the space. We took the lid off and were planning to use it as just a regular summer garden box. Again, we had major issues with germination (due to the purchased soil). And what did sprout up was taken by birds who had discovered the area. We bought pinwheels and hung little flashy things, which kept the birds away, but it was already too late. So we gave up on the cold frame.

Early August meant it was now time to plant the fall/winter garden in the cold frame. We are giving it another go. The lid is off, and we have put some lattice over the box to help with the extreme heat we are dealing with. We have planted it, yet again, and we have some small sprouts beginning to pop up. Hopefully, we will be able to get them to grow, and then we can add the lid back on late this fall when we start having frosts. Maybe we can get this cold frame to work this time.

High Plains Garden Update Part 1 – The Straw Bale Garden

This our first time ever trying straw bale gardening. We had a raised bed, square-foot, extended season garden when we lived up in the high-altitude Rockies. Last June, when we moved to the High Plains, and the property had no garden set up yet, we knew we would need to do a lot of research and try to figure out the best way to garden in this new, surprisingly different, climate. After a lot of research, and taking into consideration our time constraints (as we are working to build up a lot of the farm all at once) and financial restrictions (due to trying to build up a lot of the farm all at once), we landed on a plan that has us trying a straw bale garden this year and transitioning it to a raised bed garden next year, using the decomposed bales as a foundation for filling the beds under the compost.

Last fall, we laid down cardboard, laid out our bales (in a way that is not the suggested way in the straw bale garden book, but is a more efficient use of space). And then we left it for the winter.

Since we have always done extended season gardening by using hoop tents and Wall-O-Waters (WOWs), we decided to try that here as well. It made things interesting due to the fact that you need to prep the bales before you can plant in them.

To use straw bales as a garden, you must first prepare the bales by getting them to begin composting inside, thus creating food for the plants. A straw bale all by itself does not contain food for plants. But by adding fertilizers and water repeatedly you can make the bale begin to break down and compost, providing food for the plants. The book has a suggested 12-day schedule for preparing your bales, and it says that you can plant up to 2 weeks earlier than your average last frost due to the heat in the bales. To get the bales breaking down you need somewhat warm temps, and we wanted to try prepping them in early March so we could do our extended season gardening methods. But at that point we were still getting freezing temps every night and were having storms come through that would be below freezing for a few days at a time. So we didn’t know if it would work, but we decided to jump right in and give it a try.

We watched the weather predictions and waited until we saw a 6-day stretch with daytime temps in the 50s and nighttime temps in the 20s and no precipitation. Then we started the process. By day 6 the bales were starting to smell somewhat, which is a good sign of composting happening. Then a storm on days 7-9 stopped our process and froze everything solid. Day 10, as the snow was melting off, we noticed that some bales were melting off in the middle before the sun even hit them – suggesting that there was some composting going on inside of them creating heat.

As we continued our prepping schedule, starting back on day 7 instructions even though it was now day 10 (we didn’t do any prepping during the storm), we noticed that there definitely was some inconsistency across the garden as to which were composting and which bales weren’t. The areas that were in the shade part of the day were not breaking down as well as the ones getting consistent sun, which makes sense, especially with the cold temps. And some bales were still quite frozen from the storm. Again, we weren’t sure if starting so early was going to work or not, but we pressed on. We did day 7-10 prep instructions, and then got another 2-day storm that stopped us. It took a couple days for things to warm up again after the storm, and then we did the final 2 days of prep, and then it was time to plant.

We used purchased planting mix soil on top of the bales for planting the types of seeds the book suggested needed some soil on the bales, and we planted away. We brought out seedlings from the grow lights inside and got them in the bales. We protected everything with hoops and WOWs and sat back hopefully watching to see how this would all go. The seedlings started to grow.

And then the wind came.

Spring brought crazy wind “events” that even the old timers had never experienced in this area before. We had days on end of sustained 60mph wind coming strong from one direction. For over 6 weeks we were averaging 4 days of this wind every single week. It was crazy. It destroyed our hoop tents, knocked over all the WOWs with seedlings in them, and for lack of any better way to describe it, “mummified” the seedlings by drying them out through their stems and leaves. Despite the fact that the seedlings had plenty of water, their root systems were not developed enough to make up for the loss of moisture through their stems and leaves due to the constant wind. It blew away over an inch of all the soil we had put on the bales where we had planted seeds, and took the seeds with it too. We rebuilt the hoops and tried new ways of stabilizing them three different times, only to have them destroyed over and over again. We finally gave up. By early May our garden was a sad mess of dead plants and lost hope. We had a couple of tomatoes and one pumpkin plant survive it all, though by then they were dried, mummified stems with one or two sad leaves left. We didn’t know if they would come back or not.

Meanwhile, I had started new seedlings indoors as I had seen the rest get wiped out. The winds finally seemed to be done and gone, so we started fresh again. We fertilized the bales once, to give them a boost, and started planting seeds and seedlings. It was very slow going. The seedlings survived, but didn’t really grow much. We fertilized again a couple of times over a few weeks, trying to give the bales a boost of nutrition for the little seedlings. But they still struggled. And we could NOT for the life of us get any seeds to sprout. We did it just as the book said with the soil on top, but nothing would sprout. Hundreds of carrot, beet, spinach, lettuce, turnip, and kohlrabi seeds were planted and never sent up any sprouts. In my container garden the seeds were sprouting, so we know it wasn’t a problem with the seeds themselves. It seemed to have something to do with the bales. We continued to battle through May and June, with seeds not sprouting and seedlings not growing (but not dying either). We also had planted onion plants and potatoes in both the straw bale garden and other gardens. The potatoes and most of the onions in the other gardens have done very well, but all the onions and potatoes died in the bales. So by June, we were having some success in other gardens, and little to no success in the straw bale garden.

Finally, at the beginning of July, we started to see some progress and turn around in the bale garden. We still had terrible germination of beans, and no germination of any of the root veggies nor leafy greens. But the tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, melons, cabbage, and cucumbers have taken off and are doing very well. We are battling a ton of grasshoppers, aphids, squash beetles, and other pests in all our gardens – soil and bales. So far we are winning, and hoping to continue that progress through the season and have something to show for it come harvest time.

We have harvested a couple of cabbage and a couple of purple beans from the straw bale garden, plus one beet (only two germinated out of about 50 that were planted). In the other gardens we have been able to harvest rhubarb, scapes, garlic, kitchen herbs, medicinal herbs, peas, onions, and a couple of strawberries (we are pinching most blossoms to get the strawberries established as it is their first year).

I have no idea whether our bale garden issues had to do with our strange spring (we heard a lot of people that had been gardening for years say they were having a really hard garden year this year). But it couldn’t just be that because we are seeing a difference with the plants that were planted both in the soil gardens versus the bale garden. Obviously the wind set us back, but after that the continued struggles are confusing. It might have to do with us trying to prepare the bales during the cold weather so early in the year. I don’t know if it was the nature of straw bale gardening itself. But it definitely seems like certain veggies do better with straw bale gardens that other veggies do. That has been our experience thus far. We will see what the rest of the season brings us as far as the straw bale garden goes, and update you as we see, in case any of you are considering a bale garden.

Meanwhile, we have built our first raised bed for next year’s garden and will be planting it, along with our cold frame, over the next few weeks with the hopes of a small fall/winter garden. I will share more about that in Part 2 of our High Plains Garden Update.

One Year!!! Building a Homestead Vs. Moving an Existing Homestead to a New Location

It has been a longer break than expected…but I am back at the computer, ready to share what has been going on.

From 2012-2021, we built our dream of a homestead on a small 3-acre property in the high-altitude Rockies. It was a lot of work, but realizing a dream usually is. Last summer, we moved that little dream homestead to a 30-acre property in the High Plains of Colorado. We knew moving a homestead to a new location would be a lot of work, but we figured it would be similar to the work we had put in for the last 9 years building our homestead. We were wrong – it is SO much more work!

Don’t get me wrong – we have been so blessed by this move and are loving our new, much larger, homestead, and all the opportunities the new space gives us. But we are so, so, so much busy-er than we expected. Thus, the absence from the blog.

When we built our previous homestead, for the most part, we added things one-at-a-time and were able to do the work maintaining what we had while adding the new project in – generally one new project at a time. This new property had some infrastructure – buildings, fences, etc. Which have been very helpful and we are very grateful for what it came with. But most of it is not set up in a way that works for the livestock we have and the way we like to manage the livestock. So, while we are trying to maintain what we already have (the daily chores of feeding, watering, cleaning, milking, weeding, repairing damage to buildings and fences), plus spring birthing/hatching season and all the extra work that brings, not to mention life outside of the farm, we are also trying to build infrastructure that works for our animals and how we like to manage them and build vegetable and fruit growing infrastructure and get gardens going. And it is not a one-project-at-a-time thing as we add new aspects like it was when we originally built our little homestead. Everything is at the top of the priority list fighting for its spot and everything needs to be done right now (well really, yesterday) because we already have all the livestock and they need what they need. Add to that learning a new climate and environment, and learning how to help reverse the damage that this property has sustained to its soil and ecosystem. Oh, and don’t forget the fact that we moved a large family into a small house and have needed to find and make ways to manage human housing as well. And…well folks…there just are not enough hours in the day.

We are so excited and hopeful about this new adventure. And that helps us face the exhaustion and days where we just feel so very overwhelmed. And doing this all together as a family makes it fun and unites us in new ways as well. It is fun brainstorming together when we need to solve a problem or are dreaming about a new something. Everyone is so creative and has great ideas on how to accomplish things. We are very happy and surprised at how much we have accomplished in just one year…even with a to-do list that never ends. So it is good – but not easy. Long days, short years.

As we are celebrating one year at our new farm, I thought I would make some time to jump online and give a blog update on what is going on around here. There is so much it is going to be a long post, just talking about what is going on outdoors, let alone indoors. So I will keep this one to just the outdoors.

Hoof Stock

The sheep and goats had a very productive birthing season. They birthed 19 babies (5 goat kids and 14 lambs) – which is a very large amount for us considering our average year before was about 4-5 babies with our biggest year before this being 9 babies. We had our first (and second) set of triplet lambs ever born on our farm. We also had a set of triplet goat kids. Three sets of triplets! We were also very blessed in that every single ewe and doe got pregnant and gave birth except the smallest ewe lamb from last year. We did not expect any of the ewe lambs from last year to get pregnant, but they all did except one. All of the lambs and kids survived and are thriving well.

We have been continuing to improve and build more fencing for the hoof stock pastures and pens and have also been building some more shelter for them. Ultimately, we need a nice big barn, but that is down the road a bit, so for now we are working to make sure they have adequate housing for what we need in the moment.

We are continuing to work on intensive grazing the ewes and lambs to bring life back to our soil (we don’t have the infrastructure to get the rams out on pasture yet). We are able to graze them on small sections of about 1/3 of our property by using electronet fencing. We are working on building a moveable shelter, which will bring that area up to more than half the property that will be able to be intensively grazed by them in small grazing portions. The pasture is very fragile, especially due to the windy, dry spring we had. It is all much shorter than it was this time last year. So we are being careful to move the sheep as needed to not over-graze it.

We are utilizing the fact that goats can be staked-out to graze some of the areas that are unreachable by the ewes and lambs with the two adult does. The area that they are on was grazed by the ducks last year, and as you can see (in photo below) it is in much better shape than the pastures (in photo above). So the grazing we did of the ducks last year really added a lot of nutrition to the soil and helped it along. Someday, we hope the whole property will be healthy and green.

Ducks

We have the ducks out grazing again this year. We are using the duck tractors we built last year, along with electronet poultry fencing.

We only have some grazing right now. One hen hatched two ducklings for us earlier this spring. It was her first time and she made a few mistakes, thus ending with just two ducklings, but I am sure that the experience will help her do better next time.

We were not set up for duck setting and brooding when she decided she wanted to set. So she set and hatched in a big plastic dog crate. Which worked fine, but we were wanting something more permanent for duck setting and brooding. We have since then been able to build a little broody duck house and pen from some building scraps we had around the farm. Another one of those infrastructure things we needed to do that I was discussing above.

We have another Muscovy hen setting now. She decided to set in the corner of the duck coop, so we left her there. The other hens are leaving her alone and letting her do her thing.

We decided to set up the incubator inside with some duck eggs in it to supplement for loss. We also have a hen setting, and I set up the second incubator with some eggs to supplement her hatch as well. So we have two incubators going right now.

Chickens

As I said, we have a hen setting – our ten-year-old Silkie hen, Eve. She has set and hatched 1-3 clutches for us every year since she started laying. She is an excellent broody hen and we are so glad we have her. She is small and can only sit on 6 standard eggs. But she can easily raise 10-12 chicks, especially in the warmer summer weather. So we have the back-up eggs in the incubator to increase the hatch and give her plenty to raise for us.

We don’t like free-ranging our chickens for several reasons. BUT we do like putting our chickens to work and giving them nutrition similar to free-ranging. We like to have our chickens live in our barnyards and stalls and work through all the compost and stall waste, eating bugs, grubs, seeds, etc. It keeps the stalls free from maggots in the deep bedding and helps our compost become black gold much faster. The new farm was not set up in a way for us to keep our chickens in the barnyards like we like to. We were able to build a coop and pen for the standard size chickens last fall that made it possible for us to dump the compost into their pen so they could work through it.

That has been working great. We clean out the stalls and dump it in there and we bring all the kitchen and garden scraps to it as well. They dig through it and work it. We pile it back up, they dig back through it, repeat…until after about a month or so it is pretty well broken down and then it goes into the “more composted” compost pile and we bring them a new load to work through. It keeps our feed bills down in that they eat a lot less when they have compost to work through. It is physically and mentally healthy for them. And it creates compost for the garden faster than when we just pile it all up.

But we ultimately want to get chickens living in each of our barns and barnyards with the hoof stock. The bantam hens have been living in a little backyard-type coop and haven’t been able to free range or even work compost since we moved here. It was fine for the winter, but we were really happy to get them set up to live out in the ewe barn so they can dig through those stalls and have a better diet and mental stimulation. We just built a little coop and hooked it to the fence.

They seem very happy with their new set up. They have a ton of space compared to the little backyard coop they lived in all winter. And all the bugs, grubs, seeds, etc that they can find.

Guineas

Last summer we got Guinea keets in hopes that when they grew up they would keep the snakes backed off from the house and barn areas. We had a lot of rattlesnakes last year and wanted a natural solution to the issue. We had heard Guinea hens would help keep snakes away and we were very excited to try it out.

Thus far it seems to be working. We have only seen two snakes (both bull snakes) and they both were way out away from the buildings and main housing area. So, it seems that the guineas really do help keep snakes at bay.

Gardens

Gardening at the new property has probably been the biggest challenge of everything we have done so far. We had the “windiest spring on record since 1981” and no rain. We had day-after-day of wind for weeks. We had 40-60mph sustained wind all from one direction for hours on end. It wreaked havoc on our seedlings, any seeds we planted, and our season-extending tents and WOWs. It was a rough spring for the garden.

The wind has finally calmed down, and we have gotten some rain in the last three weeks or so. Many seedlings died, hundreds of seeds never sprouted or died as tiny sprouts. But, some seedlings have survived, some were not out in the garden yet at the time of all the wind, and some seeds are finally starting to sprout. It seems like everything is way behind where it should be, but such is life.

We did not have the resources last fall to build the raised-bed main veggie garden that we plan to build. So we decided to use straw bales this year, giving us time to gather more resources and creating a foundation of decomposing straw for next year’s raised bed garden. The straw bale garden suffered the worst with the wind. Some stuff is starting to come back and we are nursing it along, but it has not done great so far.

We have also been plagued by mushrooms. The straw bale method book talked about mushrooms coming as part of the composting process, but made it out to be a one week or so and then they will be gone type of thing. We have been dealing with mushrooms for over a month and it looks to not be ending any time soon. They uproot the seedlings and push out the seeds we plant before they can sprout. Frustrating.

It is still early in the season. We are grateful for a much longer growing season than we used to have in the mountains. There is time for the wind-wrecked stuff to recover and produce. And we are hopeful it will.

The container gardens are doing much better than the straw bale garden thus far. The container gardens include planted containers we brought from the old homestead here, containers we built and planted last year, and some containers/raised garden beds that were already here when we moved in. We amended the soil in them, built them up or repaired them, and have been using them.

Most of the containers are kitchen and medicinal herbs. But there are also some fruits and veggies in them. We have harvested and enjoyed chives, rhubarb, garlic scapes, and peas already from the container gardens.

Garlic Scapes

The apple tree and some strawberries survived the winter. But then they were killed by the winds. The gooseberry bushes look to also have been killed by the wind – but it is unclear on those. Such a bummer. We hope to add more fruit trees and bushes in the future. But for now, there is enough on the list to get to that fruits will have to wait.

Overall, a very productive and very busy spring. We are learning, expanding, and enjoying the new farm.