Solstice

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Today is the shortest day of the year, and our chickens are celebrating by taking time off of their egg-laying and exploring the last vestiges of fall in the yard.

Our chickens are nearly a year old and are so far making the transition into cooler weather rather well – Wyandottes are a cold-hardy breed and haven’t minded the chilly mornings at all! What they have minded, however, are the decreasing daylight hours. When all nine girls were at their laying peak in late summer, we gathered 39-40 eggs in a typical week – ever since November, our production has plummeted to 30, 25, 20, 15, and, most recently, 5 eggs last week. With today being the solstice, we will hopefully see an increase in production again soon!

(Nothing makes you pay attention to the day length more than having chickens! One watches the sun carefully when you are in charge of letting out the shrieking and clamoring dinosaurs at dawn and ensuring they are tucked away safely from predators at dusk. In June, we were up at 6:15am and in bed at 9:30pm – in December, we are out at 8am and in bed by 5:15pm. How remarkable!)

With the decrease in rain and temperatures, the grass hasn’t bounced back nearly as well as in spring and summer. We’ve parked the coop in a new area of the garden that we need “tilled” and fertilized, so heavy and focused work from the ladies is welcome! The adult birds have quite the tilling power – we have found that two weeks in one location clears most of the growing material (9 birds in 80 sq. feet). To decrease boredom and keep them occupied, we’ve consistently added leaves and straw to scratch through and explore. The straw doubles as insulation in their roosting area upstairs for cold nights (so far nothing cooler than 18 degrees). No dangerous heat lamps here!

This fall, we are celebrating new successes with cool-weather crops – in the past, our seedlings have been mis-timed, struggled with germination, or simply got eaten by pests. This year, there were several successful interventions that we attribute to a steady supply of lettuce greens, kale, and carrots:

  • Seed trays in part, but direct sun, on the back patio (as opposed to germinating lights in the basement)
  • Seedlings transplanted in mid-September (by the moon)
  • Extra seedlings kept in case of failure
  • Mosquito netting added early on to protect from insects and larger pests (rabbits and squirrels)

The pest-netting is still on our crops even as our temperatures hit the twenties – the cabbage moths are gone, but the rabbits and squirrels still regularly patrol the gardens. A thick mulch of leaves have kept most of the greens going strong – the kale is still decently tasty, but the lettuces have turned rather bitter. One frustration is our brassica family – our broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower are big and strong, but did not yield fruit before the freeze and substantial daylight decrease. We shall keep them in the ground and see if they will start reproducing in the spring.

We are especially excited to continue season extension strategies with a new structure on our property! E has installed a new greenhouse structure! It is anchored into the ground for security with long, looped paracord strapping the greenhouse film in place. It keeps everything mildly warmer than outside (we are still exploring and monitoring this) and will hopefully be where we can start our seedling trays in late winter – they do immensely better with true sunlight rather than germinating lights, no matter how bright. Come spring, we will remove the greenhouse film and stretch cattle panel over the top for an epic trellis structure for squash, loofah, tomatoes, and more. Tunnel O’ Squash, here we come!

Happy Solstice to you and yours!

Plant Nursery

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It’s officially been two months since we’ve moved into our new suburban homestead! The majority of our “must-handle-immediately-because-the-dryer-won’t-work” projects are over, and now it’s time to look to our potted plants and seedlings, because fall is officially here. We planted a couple of cover crop beds (I’ll share more later this week, after some better photos) and our lovely patio is bursting with happy plants – however, our forecast calls for rain and cold tomorrow, with a low pushing 40. Some of our plants can withstand and even want to overwinter outside, but so many of our lovelies just can’t handle temperamental Kansas weather.

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When we first looked at the house, we couldn’t imagine what we would do with a formal sitting room. Our rental had squeezed in a small living room between a bedroom hallway and the garage with an afterthought of a kitchen tucked in a corner, so suddenly having a formal dining room, formal living room, a large family room, and a full kitchen to spread out amongst was daunting! Naturally, we filled it all quickly, but the formal sitting room was rather pointless. It held my grandmother’s antique spinet piano and some assorted bookcases with an old loveseat hastily covered with a cheap sofa cover, but it was not the inviting, useful front room we were looking for.

Suddenly, having a patio full of plants that needed a home and a front room that needed a purpose meant that we have a new plant nursery. It won’t be a greenhouse by any means, but in combination with a bright, north-facing bay window and some plant lights, we have a way to home our plants for the winter and maybe even start our seedling operation come Christmas.

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Evan purchased a couple of grow lights to get us started – these bulbs fit typical light fixtures, provided they have some extra vertical space to come out of the fixture (they are much taller than typical bulbs). They provide the full spectrum of light that plants are accustomed to outdoors to help supplement the low to typical light the window would bring in and provide a brighter light for plants like my gardenia or our Pixie grape plant, which will come inside soon.

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Now, to address the white carpets, I decided to get sneaky with my carpet protection. I don’t know how long the carpet will actually stay white (thank you, cats), but for now, I’ve tucked a shower curtain beneath the rug so that we’ve got one extra layer of protection if our plant trays leak onto the floor. Every plant gets a plant tray, and I’m always careful to water so very little actually ends up in the tray – wet roots lead to decay and mildew growth.

I spent nearly five years working in a floral shop in high school and college, and one of my favorite watering tricks was actually to water over the sink and only water once a week. Watering infrequently but heavily helps create stronger roots that search more actively for nutrients, which is great for encouraging those vegetables in the garden to reach down further to gain nutrient access. With our houseplants, I like to remove the plant from the basket & tray (plant stays in the main pot, just not the decorative one(s)) and hold it under the faucet until the water is running out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. At that point, I keep running the water for about 5-10 seconds longer and then let it sit in the sink with the drainage holes over the drain. If it’s still pretty light in weight after the first watering, I’ll usually water the same way again, but otherwise it should be good to go for 4-7 days, depending on the warmth, size of roots/amount of roots, sunlight, and humidity the plants are exposed to on a daily basis.

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Not many plants on this side of the room yet – this’ll change quickly come November!

For now, we have just a couple of houseplants in our new plant nursery, but they’ll be more very soon with cool weather on the way! I’m also excited for our plant room come winter because our white wicker bookshelf and the large cafe table will provide wonderful places to set up seedling operations come Christmas and New Years. We visited different farms on a farm tour this weekend, and one of the farmers we visited recommended that we do fewer vegetables as direct seed and more as seed starters indoors, so I imagine we’ll use this space quickly if we’re to try more onions and such for the spring. In the meantime, while it becomes darker and gloomier outside, we’ll brighten up our house with lots of green on the inside!