Friday, March 4, 2011

Gardening by the seat of my pants

I've read all the books. I know how I'm supposed to garden for maximum return. And yet, I don't have good soil, I don't have the patience to wait til after the last frost date and sometimes I let those seedlings get too big before I get around to potting them up or transplanting them. So, gardening for me, seems to be one long series of experiments in how far can I push the boundaries of this or that vegetable.

This bed is a case in point. It is early March, last freeze is still 2 1/2 months away. This started out as a sheet-composted bed over heavy clay soil that grew potatoes last year for its first crop. They seemed to have leached all that organic material out of the soil and it's back to heavy clay. So last fall, being the sort of irregular gardener that I am, and noticing that the bark mulch in the pathway next to the bed had decomposed significantly and the chickens were finding lots of protein snacks in it, decided to top mulch the bed with fall leaves held down by the decomposing bark mulch, which I just shoveled off the pathway and onto the bed. I covered the beds with weed cloth and carpet remnants, mostly to keep the free-ranging chickens out. I really wasn't sure how this might work.
But about mid-February, as deep winter broke and the days started to warm into the 50s more often than not, I put some PVC pipes over some 2' rebar stakes and stretched some 6 mil plastic over the bed to warm things up. In early February's first quarter moon, I'd planted some carrot seeds in a flat, as I'd read somewhere that you could transplant very young carrot seedlings (typically, root crops can't be transplanted. But when I get antsy in late winter, I'm willing to try anything to get a jump on gardening.) And while an earlier planting of carrot seeds in January hadn't germinated, this batch emerged into a glorious green carpet of carrot seedlings in less than 2 weeks.
So about a week ago, I transplanted them into the bed. Knowing they didn't want their roots disturbed, I carefully lifted chunks of potting medium and seedlings out with a butter knife and immersed them in a bowl of warm water (warm mostly to keep my hands from freezing, but maybe the carrots liked it too) and tickled and teased the roots apart. Then I pulled open holes in the mulch/soil (on this end of the bed it was slightly more soil-y) and tamped them in. I'm surprised and thrilled to say that it looks like 95+ percent have made it so far.
Edited to add: I have since read that transplanting carrots causes their roots to fork, and that's exactly what happened with these. While plenty of carrot root was produced, each plant looked like a strange sea creature with many tentacles and many were so hard to clean the dirt out of they weren't worth the effort. I won't try transplanting them again.
Intrepid carrot seedling

I open the bed up on sunny days, and keep it covered on snowy days and at night, when it's still dropping into the 20s and teens.
Once I realized that the carrots had survived, I decided to test out some bok choi and spinach. The left half of the bed, where the potatoes were grown, has less-decomposed leaf-litter and bark mulch, which may be problematic. When you have active composting going on in a bed, the nitrogen in the compost is temporarily occupied in reaction with the carbon in the compost and isn't available to any plants. But I thought I'd give it a shot. These seedlings had grown a bit too long in their first flat and had some pretty tangled root systems. With more warm water bathing and teasing apart of roots (which makes the planting process rather time consuming and is not something the average farmer is going to do), I planted the spinach and bok choi, taking care to pull open holes in the soil/mulch deep enough for the roots to stretch down straight. After patting everything in, I watered with warm faucet water (too cold to have the outside hoses running yet) in hopes this would warm up the deeper regions of the bed a bit, and finished with a watering can or two of decomposed fish soup (warm water with a few tablespoons of fish emulsion in it). My hope was that the nitrogen in the fish emulsion would offset any loss of nitrogen in the still decomposing mulch.)
Uncovering the beds this morning, it looks like almost all the spinach and bok choi made it through the night.
bok choi

The really smooth looking patch in the middle of the bed is where I dumped most of a bag of composted steer manure and bark mulch from Home Depot. I'm planning on testing the ability of arugula and carrot seeds to start in that medium when the weather warms back up this weekend. Standard advice is that you should work that manure mulch into the soil, but seeing as how I don't have soil under there, just more of the leaf litter mulch (in which I figured seeds would just get lost), I'm experimenting here as well.
So, I'll report back how these various seed starting experiments go in a week or two. For now though, I'm amazed at the resilience and willingness to grow that these little veggies are showing!


  1. Great hearing about your experimentation, do your chickens create a lot of destruction in the yard?

  2. Heh. Yeah, they're little feathered mobs of seedling destruction this time of year. Being bred from jungle fowl, they're built to scratch in the leaf litter and beds with lots of mulch or seedlings are total chicken magnets.
    Now that I've planted this bed out, I've relegated them to the small run outside their coop area which they've already scratched to bare dirt, and they're complaining bitterly.
    We do pick up a weekly box of scrap lettuce from a backyard-chicken-friendly grocery store, but I'll probably fence in a grassy corner of the yard for them soon and let them roam there in the afternoons (chickens seem to lay eggs in the morning to early afternoon, and mine want to lay in the coop, so if I put them out too soon in the day and they need to lay, they freak out and start running on the fence and calling to me and I spend way too much time carrying chickens hither and yon.)
    I can let them run in the larger yard come mid summer, when the beds are well established and there's plenty of grass and dandelions for them to eat, as long as I don't mind the occasional munched kale or chard leaf. I haven't seen them go for anything but greens and the odd strawberry. And they do jump on the grasshoppers in a satisfyingly deadly way.
    Their bigger impact on the yard is probably their droppings -- I actually like the self-spreading fertilizer aspect of chickens, but it grosses out my husband and daughter. I think the birds are healthier, happier and lay richer eggs if they're allowed to behave and eat as naturally as possible (bugs and worms for protein), so I spend much more time than the average chicken owner moving them around I'm sure (but I'll bet those average guys can't sit down in their back yard and have two or three chickens hop up on their lap for a sunbath and nap, and I'll take that any day!)

  3. Oh, and there's always predators to worry about. We've had a fox jump into the yard on a number of occasions, and one night last spring one killed one of our then-young birds and wounded another because we left the garage door open at night (we were keeping them in an unsecured pen the garage waiting for them to grow large enough to safely integrate with the original flock of four). But we're lucky to back to a school yard and as long as school's in session or the weather's nice and people are on the playground after hours, the chickens are safe in the yard. We have friends who've lost five or six birds at a time to mid-day predator attacks though.

  4. Thanks for the great info, I have wanted chickens for a while and am planning on finally getting them next month. I have never had chickens before so it should be interesting, I am getting 3 and am planning on keeping them in a coop when we are not home and letting them free range when we are outside. I live in a rural area and have two neighbors close by, both with dogs (friendly dogs) that also free range, not sure if they will go after the chickens? I am hoping not!

  5. From what I hear and read from other chicken owners, dogs are right up there as top predators of chickens. Any way to fence them out from your chicken's free-ranging territory? I wouldn't trust any of my neighbors' dogs with our chickens (well, maybe the little shitzus next door), and I like them all. We have a dog not much larger than the chickens and she is fine with them. When my folks come to visit, I do not let their 100 pound white shepard mingle with the chickens. He seems pretty cautious around them, but I've also seen him charge at them to make them flap and squawk and I don't know what he would do if he were allowed to chase them like that. Hunting instincts can be pretty strong.
    Good luck with them! I might get more than the three, especially if you are at risk of predation, because if you find you need more, it's a bit of a drama to introduce new birds to an existing flock -- much pecking and harassing can go on, to the point of injury sometimes.