Today I will be continuing the conversation on producing your own food. There is a lot to cover and what I can include in this podcast will only whet your appetite for more. Growing food for you and your family is one of the most satisfying occupations in the world. That is of course in my humble opinion. I’ll keep talking about it as long as you want to keep listening to it.
Welcome new listeners and welcome back veteran homestead-loving regulars. Thank you so much for stopping by the FarmCast for every episode. I appreciate you all so much. There are so many exciting things happening around the homestead. Let’
Our Virginia Homestead Life Updates
Let’s start with homestead updates. I have some fantastic news. Well, it’s fantastic for us. I’ll save it for last, just before I get into the next “producing your own food” segment.
We have three cows and one heifer that are scheduled to give birth very soon. Claire and Butter are two of the cows, Luna is the heifer. All of these girls are due sometime around the 23rd of March. Our newest cow, Cookie, is due in mid-April.
I forgot to tell you all about Cookie in the last podcast. She is our latest addition to the homestead. Cookie is about 4 years old. We were a little concerned about meeting our needs for milk in the early spring so we started looking around for a good milking girl to add, at least temporarily, until we get our younger girls bred and producing milk.
Cookie is a great cow. She is a from an organic dairy about an hour and a half from us. She is mostly jersey but has some guernsey in her as well. Originally, she was a 4-H show cow. That makes her very friendly and an attention seeker. We love her already. And it looks like she integrated into the herd without issue.
We expect lambs in the next two weeks. There are five ewes that are currently pregnant. Two of them are older and I expect at least one of those girls to have twins. The other three are just about a year old. Normal birthing is for yearlings to have a single lamb. We are looking for five to seven lambs this season.
Finn and Charlotte are on patrol duty for keeping these guys safe. Finn is still escaping regularly and we are working on a training regime for him. Every time he goes where he is not supposed to be, he gets put on a tether for two days. We are hoping this will be effective. However, it is well known that any dog with Great Pyrenees genetics will tend to roam. Recently, he hasn’t been roaming outside of the perimeter fences, but we really want to train him to stay in the area he is assigned. We shall see how it all works out. It may be that we simply have to live with him going wherever he wants, whenever he wants. It is obviously dangerous for him, but we do not want to deflate his spirit and ruin him as a livestock guardian dog. I hope that the birth of the new lambs will give him better incentive to stay with his charges. We shall see.
The quail seem to cause me perpetual grief. So many people love walking in nature and I do too. It seems so peaceful and calm and beautiful. The true reality is that nature has a really brutal side to it. You all know this. Storms and drought and fires and floods are all daily happenings around the world. What we tend to overlook is how brutal animals can be with each other. The quail have been a real challenge in this area.
After months of no issues, all of a sudden, I might have one, two, three birds that are brutally attacked by the others in the cage. It is heartbreaking. I then have to make special arrangements for healing of these unfortunately bullied birds. If I can find the culprit, I separate her from the rest. One dilemma is where do I keep all of these? What quarters do I have available for housing?
Right now, I have two roosters in the bottom right cage. One is in the main part and the other is in the enclosed box the hens use for laying eggs and all use for taking dust baths. The one in the main part of the cage was not too badly injured. The other was in really bad shape. Yesterday it looked like he had his eyesight back in at least one eye. This is after three or four days of complete blindness. I’m happy he is healing. I still don’t know what I’m going to do with these two guys after they are healed. That cage is meant for hens who are laying eggs.
I believe I found the perpetrator. I took a chance and put her in another cage. I took out the rooster in that cage and put him in another cage. That was risky also. It is always risky to put one bird or another into a group of strangers. So far, after a few days of this setup, there have been no more incidents. But I have a cage of hens with no rooster. That means eggs, but no fertility. Do I dare put a rooster back in there with the mad hen? I know, you probably think I should just cull her and be done with it. I agree, though the problem I have is that one quail is barely enough for one child. We need three or four to make a meal. I could take the two injured roosters as well. But the risk there is I need them for breeding later. It’s all so complicated. So, what is the solution?
Well, the solution is for me to give up on quail altogether. Maybe another could handle it, but not me. We have ordered baby chicks which should arrive around the first or second week of April. It will take them many months to get large enough to provide us with eggs. I will deal with the quail until then. Once the chickens are grown and producing eggs, all of the quail will go to freezer camp. Their cage will be repurposed. Perhaps at a later date we will add rabbits to the homestead and this will be the perfect housing for them.
I shopped in detail and we discussed at length which chicken breed we wanted to raise. In the end, we settled on two breeds. First the Barred Plymouth Rock. These are black and white spotted chickens. They lay brown eggs. Second the White Plymouth Rock. These are pure white and they also lay brown eggs.
There were several reasons for choosing these two breeds. The first and most important reason is that they are what is called “dual-breed” chickens. Like our cows that are abundant in meat and milk, these chickens excel at producing both meat and eggs. Both breeds produce large brown eggs and top out in weight at nearly the same size.
I thought I had decided on a different breed, the Buff Orpington. I loved their beautiful tan color and fluffy look. However, after comparing breeds, it became obvious that the Buff Orpington, while dual-purpose, leaned toward meat more than eggs. They produced an equal number of eggs to the Plymouth Rocks, but medium rather than large. And the fully grown Buff Orpington is significantly larger than the Plymouth Rock breeds. I’m very happy with my choice. Eggs were the most important to us, but not to the exclusion of meat.
There is a breed of chicken called Easter egg. They lay multiple colors of eggs. Then there are the really productive egg layers, but the birds don’t put on meat like the dual-purpose breeds. I may check them out in the future because, as I said, our primary need is for eggs. And I may raise a few high producing egg layers and see how the carcass compares with the dual-breed chickens. It’s a whole new adventure.
Scott has been watching videos on various types of chicken coops. Our goal here is to provide just enough protection for two or three years. So a simpler, more stream-lined chicken coop is in order. We want something that can be completed in a day or two. Later, after the creamery is built, Scott can spend some time creating the perfect chicken coop complete with an attached garden shed. The coop will be in the garden area with immediate access to the orchard. This is for free-range grass grazing in the orchard and pest control in both areas.
Let’s move on to my continuing series on producing your own food. Animals and poultry will come later. Right now, we are focusing mostly on vegetables in the garden.
Producing Your Own Food
Today I am going to focus on the planning aspect of gardening. I’ve talked about deciding what kind of planting you will do – container, raised beds, row crops and so on. Last time I touched on starting plants from seeds. But how do you decide exactly what you are going to put in those beds and containers and seed starting plugs?
The first and most important thing you need to hear is to grow what you like to eat. There is no point growing lots and lots of gorgeous lettuce if you only eat salad once every two weeks. And while peppers are easy to grow, how many do you think you will use? And what kinds?
These are decisions that need to be made before you go into your big box store and start looking at those rows and rows of seeds. Decide before you open that giant catalog. I can’t tell you how much I love looking at those different plants and all of the various vegetables that can be grown. It is really fun – and it is so easy to get bogged down in the details and endless options.
Here are some tips. If you are going to grow zucchini, start small with one or two plants. Some kinds of vegetables produce all summer long. Zucchini, yellow squash and the various white scallop squash are examples. Even a couple of each of these plants will sometimes be overwhelming for two people. By the end of the season, you may never want to see another zucchini again. On the up side, I guarantee you that if you love this veggie, this aversion will dissipate to nothing over the winter. By spring you will be chomping at the bit to grow it again.
While lettuce and tomatoes sound great for your salad, they are not necessarily complimentary in the real world. Lettuce likes cool weather and turns bitter in the hot summer and will bolt. That means it goes to seed and stops producing. On the other hand, it’s not unusual in this part of the country to not get your first tomato until July. The lettuce is long gone. Of course, you can grow late summer/early fall lettuce and likely still have tomatoes to go in your salad. Eating with the seasons is a bit of a learning curve and can catch first-time gardeners by surprise. While I said grow what you like to eat, you might find that what you like to eat doesn’t look quite the same in the garden as it does on the grocery shelf.
How Much to Grow
Let’s see, what else? There is no good solution to knowing how much you should grow of any given vegetable. While crop reports and projected crop yields may give you an idea, your soil, your location in the world, your average weather, the fertilization schedule, pest attacks all contribute to outcome of your crop. Pest and weeds are a greater problem in infertile soil. That means in the beginning, before your soil is built to perfection, you can expect lower yields. Every year I expect greater yields. I learn more about when and how much to water, how much fertilizer is required and how often. The weather is different each and every year and that will never change.
So how do you plan for how much to grow? Some of that is limited by the space you intend to use. Beans come in a packet that usually has about 40 seeds. Plant one packet and see what it produces. Learn about how to grow the plant before settling on how much you will grow. Use your first year or two or three to simply learn how to grow things.
I’ll give some examples with a raised bed garden system with a bit of a ground crop on the side. Let’s start with tomatoes. One cherry tomato plant will provide a constant supply of candy all summer long. You might plant one or two more if you have several kids that like tomatoes. Then you might want a few plants that produce a good slicing tomato. You will find these distinctions clearly identified in your seed catalogs. Cherry tomatoes, slicing tomatoes, paste tomatoes, tomatillos. One other thing about tomatoes. There are determinant and indeterminant species. Determinant plants will produce all of their tomatoes at once and stop producing. Indeterminant tomatoes produce over and over and over all summer. They also grow very large plants with lots of greenery and needs a couple of feet of space between them. Don’t be fooled by how small they are when they are first put in the ground. These are very large plants. Only grow paste tomatoes if you plan on trying your hand at making tomato sauce, salsa, spaghetti sauce, ketchup, bar-b-q sauce, etc.
Peppers: Keep your choices down to a few. There are so many different kinds of peppers. And I must admit, they are very fun to grow. I love growing peppers. But what do you do with all of them? I grow lots of green bell peppers. At harvest time, I chop and freeze lots of them and use them throughout the winter and spring any time I need chopped peppers for a recipe. Hot peppers are a different story. Cayenne peppers can be threaded together and dried. They will last a very long time and it’s easy to reach up and grab a pepper and crush it into whatever dish you are creating. Jalapenos can be pickled. Last year I grew Pepperoncini and pickled those. Banana peppers are easy to grow. I also chop and freeze them when I get too many.
Lettuce: This is a tough one for me. There are just too many options here. If you are new to garden grown lettuce, you may need to do a lot of reading. In the grocery store you usually have access to ice berg lettuce (which no one that I know grow in their garden), large heads of romaine lettuce, and usually a green and/or red leaf lettuce. There are sealed packages of greens that are also available now that can give you a bit more of an idea of loose-leaf greens. All of these are available in your seed catalog. The romaine lettuces are usually smaller and yummier than the large heads you see in the grocery store. You know the ones that have that big white stem that you often cut out. Garden varieties will have smaller, leafier greens.
There is a variety of garden lettuce that I just love. It is called butter head. These are head lettuces but the heads are really quite small and very loose. Butter crunch lettuce is probably my absolute favorite lettuce to grow and eat.
Once you get to the loose-leaf lettuces, the variations are endless. These lettuces are sometimes called cut and come again. You cut most of the leaves off and leave the plant to grow more leaves. There are smooth leaf, ruffled leaf, curly leaf, red leaf, green leaf, purple leaf, and more. I gave up a long time ago trying to grow individual kinds and just opt for one of the salad blends.
Succession plant your lettuce. What I mean by that is you decide how much space you will use and then divide that up into four to six sections. Plant one section, wait a week to 10 days and plant again. Do that until all sections are planted. Like the first section will be producing about the time the last one just gets started. That will space out your lettuce over time so it does not overwhelm you all at once.
Beans: Our 3-foot by 8-foot raised beds require at least two packages of beans for a full planting. This is another place where you can try all sorts of beans just for the fun of it. And you may find you have a favorite that is simply not available at the local grocery where you a limited to green beans. There are purple beans – though they cook up green. Some are as long as 3-feet. I forget what those are called. I stuck with tried and true favorites with a few purple and yellow wax beans thrown in for fun.
Keep an eye out for “bush beans” and “pole beans”. I stick with bush beans. I have tried various methods of growing pole beans and always come back to the bush bean. Pole beans require support and they can climb ten feet or more. My mother had a really neat setup. Some day I may try it myself. She had a metal pole about ten feet sticking out of the ground. At the top my dad somehow mounted a bicycle wheel like a little flat top. Mom would tie string to the bicycle wheel and secure it in the ground with a tent stake. All the way around and when she was done it looked like a string teepee. She planted the pole beans at the tent stakes and those beans would climb right up those strings to the top and beyond.
Squash: again. Start with one zucchini, one yellow and perhaps one scallop. Winter squash is something else. Squash, melons, watermelon and pumpkins require lots of space. They will spread all over the place. For instance, in our raised bed system, I might have two to four plants in one bed. It will cover that bed, flow over the sides and into the walkways. I’ll keep moving the spreading vines back up onto the bed, but if it were only on the ground, I would just let it run all over. I can grow small pumpkins in the raised beds, but most pumpkins need at least a six-foot-by-six-foot area for each plant. Same with watermelon. These would be challenging for someone trying to container garden on their apartment balcony.
There really are too many options for me to cover in this short podcast. I hope I’ve given you some food for thought and if you have questions email me or contact me on our Locals page. That’s peacefulheartfarm.locals.com.
Other things to consider. Think about buying open pollinated seeds as you can save them and not have to buy the next year. That is another learning curve for some things and you may not be ready for that, but consider it.
I talked about tomatoes, peppers, beans and squash because they are easy plants to start with. Seed saving is also relatively easy with these plants, though squash has a trick to it.
Once you see how to grow things you like and you’ve whittled down what you intend to grow into the future, then you can decide how much you think you need – and then you will need to double it if you plan to save food for the winter. You can always give it away to family or those in need if you over produce. Trust me, you will need more than you think if you plan to feed your family throughout the year.
I know I talked about starting seeds indoors in the last podcast, but buying plant starts instead of trying to start from seed is a great option when you are just getting started. It also gives you the freedom to select lots of varieties without buying a package of seeds just to try one plant variety.
That really is all I have time for and please visit our locals page and start a conversation to get more information. That’s peacefulheartfarm.locals.com.
That’s it for today’s podcast. Let me know if I’m missing any animal updates. I didn’t get to the creamery today so I’ll give that special attention next week. Likely, we will have babies next time I do a podcast. That means spring is coming. And I just love this time of year.
I hope the gardening information is useful. Let me know if I can give you more information. There are likely many who listen that can also provide guidance over on the Locals platform.
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Thank you so much for stopping by the homestead and until next time, may God fill your life with grace and peace.
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