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Monday, December 28, 2015

What animals are the best range buddies for your chickens?

By Liz Greene

You’ve had your chickens for a while, you’re comfortable with their care and upkeep, and you’re thinking about expanding your little to farm to include some more critters — but you’re a tad short on ranging space. The solution, of course, is to range your new animals with the chickens. However, some creatures share space with chickens better than others, so it’s important to pick the right range mates for your flock.


Horses and chickens are a match made in heaven. Chickens provide a number of horsekeeping benefits. They pick up fallen kernels and pellets, keeping your horse from mouthing the ground to find bits of feed — a practice that can lead to ingestion of dirt and sand. Chickens also eat undigested feed and seeds that pass through manure, thus saving money by reducing feed waste.

Chickens eat flies, worms, grubs, bees, and all other manner of bugs. If they can catch it, they’ll eat it — which means it won’t be aggravating you or your horse. Furthermore, chickens love digging through manure to find worms and other tasties. Give them a pile of horse droppings and they’ll have the manure broken down and spread around in no time.

Chickens are surprisingly good for mellowing out a spooky horse. A horse with exposure to poultry won’t be startled by sudden movements, loud noises, or the occasional appearance of an egg.

It’s important not to let chickens graze with horses that have been given chemical de-wormers or any medication. It’s also necessary to keep chickens out of the horses’ hay due to salmonella concerns.

Goats and sheep

Goats and sheep are a popular choice for small farms and homesteads. You can allow goats, sheep, and chickens to range together with few problems. Just as with horses, chickens will pick up grain the goats and sheep drop, cutting down on food waste. They’ll be just as happy to eat the bugs that plague your hooved beasties. As an added benefit, chickens will provide companionship to the sheep and goats — and vice versa!

Guinea Fowl

Guinea fowl are the most compatible birds to keep with chickens, but they can be bullies. Most of the time it’s little things, like pushing hens off roosts and scattering the flock; however, if they pick a favorite mark, they can be relentless in their pursuit of a victim.

If you plan to keep both chickens and guineas on your farm, make sure to give them extra space to range. While some people house the birds together, it’s probably better to give the guineas their own quarters to avoid problems.


No matter what animals you decide to keep with your chickens, it’s important to install proper fencing. The right kind of fence will keep your critters from making a run for it, and thwart the plans of stealthy predators.

If your horses and chickens are ranging together, wire mesh fencing is perfect for restraining everyone. If you’re keeping chickens and goats together, goat panels with four inch openings should work well to keep everyone contained.

However, one of the best ways to stop predators is electric fencing. To deter wolves and coyotes, fences should have seven wires, spaced equally six to eight inches apart to a height of 54 inches.

The most important wire will be the ground wire, which should be placed four to six inches from the ground to keep predators from digging under — and to keep chickens from simply waltzing out.

A Note on Chicken Feed

Chicken feed contains a high level of protein and carbohydrates that can be dangerous to most large animals. Horses and goats are particularly sensitive to chicken feed as eating too much of it can cause bloating and death.

Arrange for your chickens to be fed inside the coop and make sure there is absolutely no way the other animals can get inside. Remember that goats are very clever and persistent at getting to what they want. They may climb through coop windows and will try to squeeze through any door.

Adding more animals to your farm will require more work, but you’ll find that you love them just as much as you love your feathered friends. And besides, watching them interact with each other will be almost as much a reward as the other benefits of animal husbandry.

Liz Greene hails from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. She’s a lover of all things geek and is happiest when cuddling with her dogs and catching up on the latest Marvel movies. You can follow her on Twitter @LizVGreene or delve deeper into her internal musings at InstantLo

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Off-season uses for tomato cages

With a nod to Dr. Seuss ... 

"Where will we hang the stockings?" the kids asked me this year.
Christmas is coming, it's practically here.

For a fireplace we've got,
but a mantle -- with crannies and nooks for placing hangers and hooks --
a mantle, we have not.

Then the gardener got an idea. A silly idea.
The gardener got a wonderful, crazy idea.

"I know just what to do!" the gardener cried
and she threw on her boots and went outside.
She tromped through the snow past summer's veggie bed
and claimed metal tomato cages resting in the shed.

Why, upside down these garden structures are just the trick
to hang up our stockings for good Ol' St. Nick.
They stand on their own in the shape of the tree:
An efficient use of space, as you can see.

With clothespins in hand the gardener thought of other reasons
Tomato cages could be useful beyond standard growing seasons.
Greeting card displays! Hat stands! Mitten racks!
Boot shapers and homes for scarves drying in stacks!

Just think -- if you place a cage above a heat vent
You can make your own compact snow-gear-drying tent. 

As she brought a little of her garden inside for the day
the gardener began to look at things in an entirely new way.
To some it's absurd, but the possibilities are endless
When the wish is to create something practically spend-less.

Happy Holidays from Backyard Farming!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Shoveling snow off of fruit trees



The very thing that generally gives me a guilt-free pass from gardening -- snow -- delivered an usual chore this week: shoveling fruit tree branches.

Snow is nothing new here, but it came so fast and so wet and heavy (and so much of it!) that trees all over town strained and split with the extra weight. I don't want my little peach tree to suffer the same fate, which is why I tromped through knee-high banks to scrape snow off its branches. The tree is in my front yard, a steep slope of three terraces. In the best of weather it's like playing mountain goat to garden there. I'm sure I gave my neighbors quite the show as I climbed the hill and hoped to not lose my footing.

Ah, that's better.

Pruning tactics to maximize fruit production and sunlight to each branch also create a basin for snow. Hold your hand out, palm up, to see how. Hold your arm vertically from the elbow, with the hand bent back, as if you were a waiter holding a tray. Now curve your fingers. Your forearm is the trunk and your curled fingers the branches. When snow makes a branch bend at a notch, the risk for breakage is high.

My tree is against a retaining wall, where the upper level provides an easy reach to all the branches. (It's why we planted it there, for easier harvest.) If you attempt to remove snow from a bigger tree, be careful. Use a shovel to PUSH snow away from you, rather than pull it toward you. Obviously you don't want to get a snow shower, but you also don't want to dislodge an already weakened branch and have it fall on you. Consider that bent branches may whip upward when snow is removed; another reason to keep your distance and use a long-handled tool. Watch out for power lines.

I don't anticipate having to shovel fruit tree branches with every snowstorm, just when the weight of snow makes the boughs bow. (See what I did there?) 

Swing on tree heavy-laden with snow.

Oops! The patio furniture got left out.

What's your most unusual off-season gardening chore?

Wishful thinking

It's a sunflower snow tower! Think my neighbors are as ready to exchange snow shovels for garden spades as I am?

Friday, December 4, 2015

Decorate gingerbread house as a bird feeder

Here's a favorite seasonal project from the Backyard Farming archives: ditching the candy of a traditional gingerbread house and decorating with treats for the birds instead. (Read here to see how my candy frustration fueled this idea!)

Use popcorn, crackers, sunflower seeds, shelled peanuts, pretzels and -- what else? -- birdseed to adorn a gingerbread house. The house shown here is a grandpa special, made out of wood and designed for perennial use. You may use regular gingerbread, graham crackers or even simple cardboard boxes as the base. Of course you'll want to put a bird feeder house outdoors, but make sure it is in a sheltered area where it won't get damaged from rain or snow, such as on a covered porch. Put it somewhere you can watch from a window.

Instead of icing, I used a mixture of peanut butter and cornmeal to attach the bird treats. The cornmeal makes the peanut butter easier to spread, and is also easier for the birds to eat. Another option is shortening in place of peanut butter (still mixed with cornmeal).

Not only is this a fun project to make, you get the added benefit of watching birds join in the winter celebration.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Roadkill pumpkin pie

"Baker in training" says my daughter's apron on this day of making pumpkin pie.

Maybe it's because my mother is such an excellent cook that we tease her relentlessly about her dubious specialty, fresh pumpkin pie. "Is this roadkill again?" someone is bound to ask when dessert is served this Thanksgiving.

Once --  mind you, ONCE -- my mother salvaged a pumpkin thrown into the street, cooked it, mashed it and baked it into a pie.

This was when I was a teenager, that time in life when I knew very little about the behind-the-scenes preparation of the food I ate, nor cared. Garden, can, ho-hum, it was all the same to me. My mom could have kept the pumpkin's origin her little secret. Hmm. I wonder ... why did she tell us? Was she proud of her resourcefulness? How did she so badly miscalculate the comical effect on our family? We've never let her hear the end of it.

Homemade pies have come and gone over the years. When my husband joined the family the story took on new life. "Ah, roadkill pumpkin pie," my dad coined for the newcomer's benefit, and we laughed, a bit in disgust, because we wished we had thought of it first. That session my mom produced new details in justification. It was an errand to drop off my brother somewhere, you see, and when she took the same route home mere minutes later, she spied the newly shattered pumpkin. It hadn't been there before. Thus she established that the pumpkin was as good and fresh as if she had carved it herself, right? 

When I learned my mother shared roadkill standards with National Public Radio contributor Bailey White, I about burst a gasket. Her mother is also an excellent cook, but White refuses to eat unless her mom can provide the model and license plate number of the striking vehicle. (See White's fabulous book, Mama Makes Up Her Mind.) Delicious!

This Thanksgiving I wish all of you chances to create new stories, and to be with those whose love is strong enough to laugh alongside you at the old ones.

Do you have a crazy Thanksgiving food story? Do tell!

Pumpkin pie (or winter squash)

1 1/4 cup fresh pumpkin or winter squash (butternut, banana, etc.) cooked and pureed*
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Pastry for 1 9-inch unbaked pie crust.

Let pumpkin sit in sieve over bowl while gathering other ingredients, to remove excess water. Combine pumpkin, sugar, salt, spices and flour in mixing bowl. Add eggs and mix well. Add evaporated milk and vanilla; mix well. Pour into pastry lined pan. Bake in preheated 425 oven for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and bake 45 minutes longer or until set.

*To cook pumpkin or squash, cut in pieces, remove strings and seeds and prepare one of three ways: microwave, covered (20 minutes, to start); in 350-degree oven (about an hour); or in a slow cooker (about four hours, but the benefit is you can stack pieces and leave unattended). When fork easily pierces pieces all the way through they are done. Puree with potato masher, mixer or food mill.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Victory veterans

I am keenly grateful for men and women who served in the military to protect my freedom. On this day of honoring U.S. veterans I also want to recognize the fascinating history of how civilian backyard farmers supported the troops: through Victory Gardens.

James Montgomery Flagg, 1918, National War Garden Commission. Source: modernfamer.com

Victory Gardens had their heyday during WWII, but actually began during WWI. Herbert Hoover was head of the U.S. Food Administration under President Woodrow Wilson and formed the program that encouraged people to consume less and produce more of their own food in their yards, playgrounds or city spaces. (Source: Virginia Historical Society.) The increase of personal vegetable and fruit production reduced the need for wartime rationing, and also freed up resources to support military efforts. Consider the effect on transportation, for instance. As more people raised their own food locally, the trucks and trains previously used to transport food were used to support the war.

At the end of World War I many people continued to garden of course, but it wasn't until 1942 that the U.S. government once again promoted Victory Gardens. At the same time the country started the Food Rationing Program.

I enjoyed reading this article about Victory Gardens: "World War II: Victory Gardens the Second Time Around."

The author stated:

Gardens began, once again, to change in the eyes of Americans, just as they had in the first world war.  They were no longer just for the poor, or for those who could not feed themselves, but for everyone.  Gardening became popular not only for food security, but for  it mental and physical health benefits and its benefits to the community.  Gardens gave a feel of productivity that citizens on the home-front needed.  A garden plot feels much more useful, productive, and important than a vacant lot or lawn.  With loved one off at war, it greatly improved morale to have an outlet for the patriotism, fear, and anxiety that many Americans felt about the war.  In 1942, about 5.5 million gardeners participated in the war garden effort, making seed package sales rise 300%.  The USDA estimated over 20 million garden plots were planted with an estimated 9-10 million pounds of fruit and vegetables grown a year, 44 percent of the fresh vegetables in the United States. (Bassett 1981)  

Work cited
Bassett, Thomas J.  “Reaping on the Margins: A Century of Community Gardening in 
America.”  Landscape, 1981 v25 n2. 1-8.

British poster by Peter Fraser. Source: Wikipedia

Victory Gardens flourished in other countries, too, as citizens of England, Canada, Australia strove to raise their own food. The good people of Germany also worked together to raise gardens and address starvation in their war-torn land.

Learning about Victory Gardens thrills me. Can you imagine if such gardens made a comeback? What if every person with a yard raised a garden with the intent to make the world better? What if every gardener preserved the harvest and shared knowledge and veggies with a neighbor? What if every person with a sunny windowsill planted some herbs? What if every person who raises a a garden for recreation used the savings on groceries to write a check to a charity that feeds the hungry?

I return to my appreciation for veterans who fought -- and keep fighting -- to make my life better. As it happens, my favorite veteran and my favorite gardener are one and the same: my dad.

The Veterans Memorial in his town overlooks the beautiful valley where he raises a vegetable garden and keeps a lush lawn for family baseball games. (Yes, that's him mowing DURING a game, because that's my dad!) This land is my land thanks to him and so many other brave souls.

Thank you, Veterans!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Tips for storing end-of-season tomatoes

Last week I rushed to the garden to pick as many tomatoes as I could in anticipation of frost. The weather forecast frost forced my hand and I had to harvest RIGHT THEN, but once picked the still unripe tomatoes are rather undemanding about when I need to do anything with them. Today I separated the tomatoes by color or, in other words, by the degree of ripeness. I put a sheet of newspaper in nursery flats and use those as trays for sorting and storing the tomatoes spread out from each other. This is important -- tomatoes that touch each other are more likely to rot.

I will place these flats in a cool, dark area in my home. The color/ripeness classification makes it easy to identify which tomatoes need to be used first. (Pasta sauce, coming right up!) The sorting practice further makes me examine each tomato; those that have any cracks or soft spots aren't worth storing until they ripen. They'll spoil first.

You can either wait for tomatoes to slowly, slowly ripen in the cooler storage area, or you can bring a them into the warmth of your kitchen a few days before you expect to use them to hasten the ripening. The tomatoes probably won't reach the same brilliant red of summer, but they will pack a tasty punch.

Another tactic for long-term storage is to wrap green tomatoes singly in paper. A standard sheet, 8.5 by 11 inches, is the ideal size for one tomato. I had a wonderful next-door neighbor who swore by this method, and it was my privilege to help her with this and other gardening tasks when she was in her 90s. (I miss her!)  I can vouch she had tomatoes into January. When doing this check a few tomatoes every week to assess level of ripeness.

This year I'm putting that method to the test, by wrapping half of my green tomatoes in paper, and leaving the others spread out on the tray. I will store them in the same place and see what happens. I'll share the results. I'm not sure what benefit the paper offers. Anyone know? I had a theory that the paper makes a barrier from ethylene gas from nearby ripening fruit. I looked for substantiation online and found conflicting info in two articles on the same site. One said that putting a tomato in a paper bag will concentrate the ethylene gas and make the tomato ripen faster. The other, (mind you, at the same site), said wrapping tomatoes in paper reduces the build-up of ethylene and slows ripening. Okey-dokey. (An aside: My 11-year-old has a science fair project due this week -- don't know what it will be yet -- which perhaps fuels my scientific yearnings!) Stay tuned!

I mentioned that I first put a piece of newspaper in the flats, which is because the plastic bottom is a wide grid instead of a solid piece, and I don't want tomatoes to fall out. The coincidence of this ad made me smile and reminded me why I bother saving the tomatoes in the first place:

They'll be much more expensive in winter! How long have you successfully stored fresh tomatoes?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Pole vs. Bush (beans)

No, we're not talking political campaigns here (although, hey, it's election day!). Instead, this is a look at pole beans vs. bush beans in the home garden.

The classifications of green beans deal with growing habits. Pole beans create long vines that often intertwine and can be trained upward on a trellis or pole (a great space-saving measure); bush beans grow into compact plants about 18 inches tall.

This year I grew Slenderette bush beans and Blue Lake pole beans. Slenderette matures in 53 days; Blue Lake in 63 days.

Slenderette is my all-time favorite bean variety. The plants are prolific. I like to harvest when beans are the thickness of a pencil. One year I counted as I harvested, and consistently got about 40 beans this size per plant at the peak of the season -- with more growing for me to harvest in a few days.

Sadly, Slenderette beans did not do so fantastic in my garden this year. The seeds did not sprout well, and those few that did quickly succumbed to rot or pests (my quail challenge), resulting in my replanting three times. It's possible the seed was poor, but I bought it this spring from a reputable source. This was a wet cold spring, and I've had to plant seeds again other years to get viable plants, yet it was interesting to me that the pole beans weren't affected the same way. They sprouted just fine.

Then the pole bean leaves and vines went absolutely bonkers, quickly filling the teepee I built with lush green, and coloring out of the lines to invade nearby tomato cages. But where were the blossoms and beans?

Meanwhile my few Slenderette bush plants were Davids to the Goliath at the teepee, but even though they sprouted more than a week later, they delivered a harvest well before the other made blossoms.

Eventually, the pole beans set blossoms, but the vines were increasingly territorial. This photo shows the bean teepee toward the middle, with scout vines in the left foreground -- about six feet and two tomato cages away from where the seeds sprouted. Crazy! The campaign to take over my garden certainly worked 

Both varieties produced delicious beans when harvested young. However, the pole beans foliage hid forming beans so well that I often did not see them until they had outgrown their tastiness. That was a disappointment. Also, while the pole bean plants seemed to do better than the bush plants in extreme heat, the actual beans dried out on the pole plants first, despite the lushness. 

Here's how I rank these two varieties on gardening issues of the day:

Taste: Tie
Best germination: Blue Lake 
First to produce: Slenderette (this, despite a later germination)
Ease of harvest: Slenderette 
Plays nice (doesn't take over neighboring plants): Slenderette
Harvest to space ratio: Slenderette (took less space and produced more)

Overall winner: Slenderette

I probably will plant pole beans again because I think they're fun, but next year they are for sure going against a fence where they can't block anything else. 

What seed varieties get your vote?