Hello everybody. Melanie Hall, here. Hope you are doing well. The conversation today – and every day – revolves around the value of tradition; traditional homestead living, traditional raw milk products and artisan CHEESE. Topics discussed here are designed to create new perspectives and possibilities for how you might add the taste of tradition to your life.
Today, I’ll follow up on the basics of getting started with gardening with an intro to seed-starting indoors ahead of planting in the garden when the weather warms. But before we get to that, more homestead updates are in order. I’ll be talking about our beautiful livestock guardian dogs for the most part. There is so much to share about these fantastic dogs.
I want to take a minute and say welcome to all the new listeners and welcome back to the veteran homestead-loving regulars who stop by the FarmCast for every episode. I appreciate you all so much. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Now, on to homestead updates.
Our Virginia Homestead Life Updates
I have a bit of cow news that I’ll add at the end. Let’s talk about the dogs.
Our Livestock Guardian Dogs
We have added two new wonderful dogs to our homestead. I can’t tell you how ecstatic I am about these beasties, Finnigan (Finn for short) and Charlotte. We purchased them from a fellow vendor at the market who is scaling down and exiting their business. They were guarding chickens and turkeys. We don’t have these kinds of birds yet but we will at some point. It’s nice to know that we have dogs that have at least some experience with poultry. It can be hard for livestock guardian dogs to learn how to guard and not chase and chew on poultry.
Finn is ½ Great Pyrenees and ½ Anatolian Shepherd. He is a big baby. Loves to have his tummy rubbed. Follows us everywhere. We have had these guys since mid-October so they are still learning about us and the sheep.
They are kept exclusively with the sheep. At first, we had to hold Finn in a fenced area next to the sheep because he was chasing them all over the place. He has since proven he can be trusted to not run them to death and now resides with them and Charlotte. I have not seen much evidence that the dogs have bonded with the sheep. That will come in time. Right now, they are learning to love us and we definitely love them.
Charlotte is a Great Pyrenees. She is the most beautiful dog I have ever seen. Well maybe I’m biased. For whatever reason, she is very shy of humans. At first, I thought she had been mistreated. Lately though, I’m thinking she was not socialized to humans at an early age. She just has an innate mistrust of humans. She is not aggressive or anything. It’s just that we cannot walk up to her and pet her.
The first time I was able to pet her was when the vet was here for a general exam and heart worm tests. While the vet was working on Finn, Charlotte came over next to me and was kind of hiding behind me. I was able to pet her and hug her. Alas, it was only for the moment when she thought she needed protection and Finn was not only unavailable, but may have needed protection himself, in her mind.
Getting to Know Each Other
From the beginning, she would come up and quickly take a biscuit from my hand as long as I had Finn between us. I reached over his back and she would take the biscuit and run off to chomp on it. A few days ago, she started coming up without Finn between us. I still can’t just walk up to her but she has improved greatly in just a couple of months. Yesterday I was able to pet her and give her some love. She is tied on a lead at the moment and allowed me to walk up to her fairly easily. It is so satisfying to finally be able to love on her. For weeks and weeks, she held back and just watched Finn get petted and babied and loved. Now she is getting some of that.
She is scheduled to be spayed next week. We don’t like having her tied up, but she has escaped twice in the past couple of weeks. The Great Pyrenees breed is harder to contain than goats. Who knew? Well, I knew there was an issue with roaming with this breed. However, I had no idea they were so successful as escape artists. We have been so concerned that she will escape and get pregnant. I’ll be so glad when this escape artist is safe from pregnancy.
Now let’s talk about Finn. That’s short for Finnigan. He is such a sweetie – as long as you are not the veterinarian. He does not like the vet. Yesterday, he showed her his teeth and growled relentlessly. Even with me standing there assuring him it was okay, he was in full protect mode. She is a brave vet and also quite familiar with working with livestock guardian dogs that are aggressive with her. We were able to get their vaccines done without much incident. I just had to be very careful to have him contained and tied before she approached. A quick stick in the rear and it was done.
Normally, we can introduce him to new people and he is fine with them. Though trusting him with someone new without us being very close is never allowed. He is very protective of us. And such a big baby when interacting with us. He loves to lay down on the ground belly up, begging for a rub. Brushing and combing him is also something he enjoys.
We love both of these animals, but they have been causing us grief when they escape. I mentioned Charlotte escaping. She is the leader in that regard. Once she makes it out, she has shown him the way. For the most part, he is the leader. Only in creating the escape path does she lead.
The first time they escaped, she returned home sometime overnight. Finn was found about 5 or 6 miles away. He was hanging out around a local farmer’s barn. After a few hours, the farmer ventured close enough to read his collar. We have a large yellow tag on all of our dogs that has our farm name and phone number plainly displayed. Finn allowed him close and he got our phone number. I was so relived to get that call. He was missing nearly 24 hours. We had Facebook messages posted to our friends.
The local radio station also broadcast it. We know this because the second time they escaped, another local farmer, only a quarter mile away this time, remembered hearing it on the radio and gave us a call. They were only gone for a couple of hours that time and Scott walked them home on a leash. Unfortunately for Charlotte, we were done with worrying ourselves over them. She is secured until her surgery next week.
We have one other dog, Mack. He is now comfortably bonded with the cows and calves. We started him with the sheep, but he also chased them. Mack is just over 2-years-old and still exhibits puppy behavior from time-to-time. As we knew the other two dogs were coming, we decided to try and get him bonded with the cows and save the intense sheep training for the older dogs – Finn and Charlotte.
He was fairly easy to acclimate with our cows. We started with a few calves from this year and then added the yearlings. Once he got comfortable with all of them, we added the three new heifers I talked about in the last podcast. And finally, all of the big girls were added to the mix. He is very comfortable with his new charges and takes his responsibilities quite seriously. When we are looking for him, we simply find out where the cows are hanging out and he is sure to be close by.
Mack is also a sweetheart and also a loaner. He is very comfortable on his own. Where Finn and Charlotte want more attention, he is fine with seeing us once a day with his food and some petting. He was born and raised with sheep and is used to being completely on his own. The only issue we have with him is his coat mats so easily. At this point, he is matted all over and will likely need some serious trimming in the spring. After consulting with the vet, it looks like he will likely get a spring trim every year. We can comb him out regularly, but he is still going to get mats that will need to be cut out. It’s just the nature of his coat. The fine undercoat is very similar to that of our cashmere goats. It is so fine, that rolling it between your fingers makes it instantly matted.
We love him very much and he is definitely worth this extra effort. Let’s talk about the sheep.
I briefly mentioned the dogs being in with the sheep. Did I mention in a previous podcast that we had replaced some of our sheep? I can’t remember. Anyway, we purchased registered stock from a local farmer and now have five breeding ewes, one breeding ram and a whether that will go to market soon.
When the Finn and Charlotte first arrived, they were both in a separate pen next to the sheep. The new sheep, who had been raised around dogs, would lay down just outside their fence. Then we put the dogs in with the sheep and all of that changed. Finn chased them and the veterans who had already been chased multiple times by stray dogs showed the new girls and guy how to hide in the woods. Even after putting Finn back in the separate pen, they pretty much kept their distance from the dogs. That was a small step backward.
Dogs are Okay
In an attempt to get the dogs to attach to the sheep and to get the sheep to overcome their fear of the dogs, we began feeding the sheep a little treat each evening. This seemed to work. Number one, Finn saw that we care for them and does not chase them anymore. The sheep were still very standoffish at first and would watch every move that Finn made. In the evening we let him lose in the field. We would supervise him either on a leash or let him run freely and watch him closely. After a few times of getting their special treats, the sheep no longer warily watched Finn’s every move. In fact, they come right up to where he is to get their food. They are jostling around with each other trying to get their head in the feed trough. We feed both the dogs and sheep within a few feet of each other. The sheep have now become so friendly that we can actually touch them a little bit while they eat. Once they are done eating, they still go back to the woods. But they are calm about it and do not stand up with their ears pricked forward listening for the evil beastie. They will calmly lay down and chew their cud.
They are all together now. During the day, I can see both of the dogs sleeping in the field and the sheep wandering around and grazing. The day I am looking for is the one where the sheep let the dogs lay down next to them. I plan on keeping them close where I can watch everything until well after the lambs are born in the spring. That may be a great challenge for the dogs. New animals and blood and afterbirth and so on. Hopefully, they will see the new lambs need to be protected and not eaten. That’s a worry for another day. God gives us each day in its turn. Right now, we are happy with how things are progressing.
I cannot tell you how many hours and hours of work Scott has put in on material lists. Prices for construction materials are skyrocketing so we are trying to buy all materials now, though it may be months before they are installed. Ceiling panels for the milking parlor are the same material as the roof. Quotes showed now double the price. Scott did get a price break and got it down to perhaps 1 ½ times the price he paid last year. That has been delivered.
Meetings with the power company and propane gas representatives have been accomplished and orders placed for materials. Electrical wiring and conduit and all the bits and pieces for that project have been ordered. I believe Scott is still chasing down some of those parts – again availability is an issue for some things. He might even have gotten the flooring materials ordered. Are you starting to get the picture of how much time he has spent thinking and thinking and calculating and thinking and calculating some more in order to accomplish this monumental task?
The plumbing is going to be contracted out. We shall see what the estimates are for that bit of work. I don’t know what his plans are about whether the commercial kitchen will be plumbed and outfitted at this time. We are just ready to get this project completed and to get started selling our cheese to the public. The fifth year of construction just began. I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Starting Plants Indoors
Following up on the last podcast where I talked about getting the soil ready and improving it over the years, I want to touch on what it takes to start plants indoors. The goal is to get them large enough and healthy enough to plant out in the garden when the ground temperature has reached the proper level.
The first step is calculating when to start them. Some plants require six weeks of growth and others eight weeks or more. For instance, tomatoes and peppers are on the eight weeks side of that calculation and summer squash and melons hang around closer to the six weeks mark. If want to venture into celery, that may require as many as 12 weeks of indoor growth along with repotting and so on. Perhaps save that for after you have a year or two of success with other plants. I do recommend getting to the point of growing your own celery. It’s not commonly grown but it is so good. That tasteless stuff purchased from your local grocery store will fall by the wayside once you know how to grow your own.
To recap, read the descriptions on what you plan to grow. They will clearly state how many weeks ahead of last frost date to start your plants. Last frost date is determined by where you live in the US. It is divided into “zones” with zone one being the farthest north and zone 8 and 9 are way down in Florida. Here in southwestern Virginia, we are in Zone 7A. Just a few miles from us, the elevation is significantly higher and those living up the mountain are firmly in Zone 6. For Zone 7, the last frost date is April 15th. For Zone 6, I believe it is May 1st. Not sure on that as it is not my zone. Look up USDA planting zones to find out where you fall in the schemes of things.
Once you have your USDA zone identified, you have your first and last frost dates. And let me be clear on this. When they say last and/or first frost dates, what they are referring to is the approximate date when the chance of frost is 50%. You can have a last frost after the official date, which can be devastating to whatever you have already planted outside. Same for first frost date in the fall. You can have plants still out in the garden that you hope to harvest before the first frost comes. It can come earlier than expected and ruin your fall harvest.
Now that you have all of that straight, you will count back from your last frost date the number of weeks recommended to grow your indoor seedlings. I usually transplant my tomatoes out into the garden two weeks after the expected last frost date. That is around the 1st week of May. I count back eight weeks from the first of May and that will be when I want my tomato plants to be started. Check your package instructions. No matter the plant, it is generally clearly stated when is the best time to plant outside and how many weeks to grow the plants indoors prior to transplanting outside. Post on Locals if you have questions.
Seed Starting Mix
Purchase good organic seed starting mix. There are all kinds of bags of potting mix and planting mix and garden soil and so on at your local Big Box stores and even more choices on line. You are looking specifically for “seed starting mix”. Jiffy and Miracle Grow are popular organic brands. There are others. Just make sure it is seed starting mix.
Decide how many tomato, pepper, lettuce, squash, etc plants that you plan on growing in your garden. I try to start that many seeds for each item plus 25%. So, if I want four tomato plants, I start five or maybe even six. It’s nature. Not all seeds will sprout and some plants may be obviously weak. Strong plants are important. Once you know how many of each plant you intend to start from seed, you will have a better idea of how many containers you need.
For planting containers, I use the 6-cell seed starting trays. They are about an inch and a half square and about two inches deep. It is beneficial to also have purchased plant trays that hold the 6-cell containers. These all come in standard sizes. The standard tray will hold 12 of the 6-cell containers. That’s 72 plants in one tray. There are other sizes of pots you can buy, but this is my choice for starting from seed. Once the seeds have reached a larger size, I transplant them into 2” x 2” containers. Each of the standard sized trays will hold 32 of the 2” x 2” pots. Additionally, you will want those clear plastic covers. Sometimes they come with the tray and sometimes you need to purchase them separately. You will need them.
You have a couple of choices about filling your containers. There is the option to fill each cell with dry mix and add water or another option is to wet the seed starting mix first and fill the cells with damp soil. I’ll leave that to you. I like to fill it dry and add water after. In either case, give yourself time to do this right. It takes some time for the seed starting mix to absorb the water. You want it just damp enough to clump together but not soggy. When wetting it ahead of time, don’t get in a hurry. Add a good amount of water and wait for it to incorporate fully before adding more. Keep it up until you reach the consistency you desire. If adding water after the fact, I use a two-step method. I wet from the top and then add water to the tray. The dry mix will pull the water up from the bottom. You’ll want to get good at adding water to the tray. It is the preferred method of adding water once your plants have sprouted. More on that later.
Planting the Seeds
Once you have the soil in the containers and dampened, you are ready to add the seeds. Many seeds are tiny and it is hard to get just one or two in the cell. Don’t worry about it. If you have several that sprout, you can thin them out by pulling the weakest sprouts out and focusing on the strongest for each cell. Tiny seeds can be laid on the surface and then sprinkled with a little dry soil. With a spray-mister you can dampen this additional layer after you have filled all the trays. I plant larger seeds by making an indentation in the seed mix with a pencil or small stick, placing the seed or seeds and gently moving the dampened soil over the seed.
The rule of thumb is that seeds are planted at a depth equal to their diameter. Lettuce seeds are laid on top of the soil. I use the pencil idea for tomatoes and peppers. Cilantro is planted a little deeper as the seed is even larger than the tomato seed. Each seed has just enough energy within it to push above the soil and begin to get sunlight. If a seed is planted too deep, it will run out of energy before reaching the surface. If planted too shallow, its roots may not get a good grip on the soil which makes a weak plant. Planting too deep has always been a bigger problem for me. I can always add soil if a seed sprouts on the surface.
Cover, Wait, then Fertilize
Once you have all of your precious seeds nestled into the potting mix, you will want to cover that tray with the plastic cover. This keeps the moisture high. Now we wait. I’ve had seeds sprout within days that the package said would take 7 to 10 days. You just never know. Check daily. Some seeds require 2 weeks or more to sprout. Do not give up too early. Once the seeds sprout, take the plastic covers off. You want to let the air circulate. Molds can kill off your seedlings overnight.
Once your seedlings have their first set of real leaves, it’s time to fertilize. There is usually a pair of initial leaves that sprout. They are generally roundish. After a day or two, a second set of leave will sprout that are usually shaped differently, more in line with a full-grown leaf of the plant. Look for leaves three and four coming up out of the center. You will see what I mean. To fertilize, I use fish emulsion in a spray mister. My particular mister model has a stream setting. I mix the fish emulsion and spray right at the base of the stem. Just one or two squirts is plenty. This fertilization is important at this stage. Do not leave out this step.
Light and Water
Now you are cooking. Keep lights on your plants 12 to 14 hours. Water about once per week. Don’t let the seeding starting mix completely dry out. Don’t make it too wet. Remember the mold. I like to water from the bottom as it encourages the roots to reach down for the water. It’s also easier than trying to spray-mist those delicate seedlings when they first sprout. It’s so easy to just drown them with even the smallest of squirts.
Okay, that will get you started. I’m going to put together a more comprehensive list of materials and such to help with the planning stages as this was more focused on the actual planting. You will find that information at peacefulheartfarm.locals.com.
And we are done for this podcast. I still have lots more updates on the homestead to share. I hope you enjoyed the update on the livestock guardian dogs. I never thought I would love dogs so much. But I truly enjoy these wonderful animals. I was so worried I would be a really bad dog owner, not knowing anything about raising dogs. As per our usual, we read a lot, asked lots of questions and found that it was not as hard as I thought. Oh, for sure, there are challenges we are facing, but I feel up to the task. The vet has helped tremendously. I can always ask the expert if I ever have any doubts.
It’s not quite time to get started with the garden yet, and I hope this podcast topic is just in time to get you in the mood for the planning parts. We will start around the end of March, perhaps a little earlier. We shall see. It all depends on what I decide on for the garden this year.
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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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