Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Madison Sweet Potato Project

Sweet potatoes? In Wisconsin!

Interested in growing a new crop?  How about supporting local food pantries?  If so, then the Sweet Potato Project is for you! Through the Sweet Potato Project, growers are provided with sweet potato slips free of charge with the understanding that half of their harvest will be donated to local food pantries in Madison and Dane County.

Please join John Binkley, (Equinox Community Farm) and Joe Muellenberg (Dane County UW-Extension) for free trainings on how to successfully cultivate the delicious, nutritious sweet potato in our climate! For more information and to sign up for trainings & free slips, please visit

A colleague of mine accepted some "slips" last year and planted them in her community garden plot, and was amazed by what she dug up later in the year. Another colleague of mine went to the Goodman Youth Grow Grow Local farm in the fall for their big harvest and told me "It was so much fun." You can experience either of these exciting things by requesting your own slips and sharing half of the sweet potatoes with a local food pantry.

Free Sweet Potato Cultivation Trainings

  • May 13th 6:30-8:00pm    (Willy Street Coop West)  (I'm going to this one!)
  • May 14th 6:30-8:00pm    (UW Extension, 5201 Fen Oak Drive, Madison) 

Monday, April 28, 2014

What I'm planting right now

This past Saturday was a cool but sunny and dry day. Nothing like the forecast for the next 10 rainy days. So I took advantage of the weather to get some plants and seeds in the ground.

I started by moving the hay off my beds and filling one that had settled quite a bit.

I then planted beet and parsnip seeds, with a few radish seeds sprinkled in the rows. Both beets and parsnips are slow to germinate (but we'll see with all this rain :), so adding a few radish seeds in helps identify the rows and makes for easier weeding.

I covered the beds with remay cloth to help keep them moist, keep birds off and help keep any warmth the soil may take up during these cool days ahead.

I also planted brussels sprouts and kale plants that I started and a few brussels sprouts of a variety I haven't grown before that I purchased from the Mifflin Street Planthouse (just two doors down from our own house!)

Finally, I planted onions (Copra and Redwing), two varieties that are good keepers for storage. I planted them quite a bit closer than the instructions call for because I just don't have a lot of space in my community garden. I think the only downside is I will get smaller onions.

I then put hay between the onion rows, and finished up the day by mulching between the rows of garlic that is up. Last fall we planted 120 garlic cloves and it looks like most of them survived the winter.

Our goal this year is to have enough onions and garlic to use generously with canning this summer, and have enough to last until next year's harvest in July and August. I think we'll make it!

Are you at all concerned about your seeds rotting in the forecasted wet soil?

2-week old chicks; breeds, parents and names

Our chicks are now two weeks old (they were born on a Sunday night). I want to introduce you to them, individually, by name, breed and "owner."

Breed: Silkie
Parent: Marissa
Name: Flora
Adult weight: 4 lbs.

Distinctions: currently the largest chick, but will eventually be the smallest. Silkies are a bantam breed, meaning they are a small bird.

However, the fun part about owning a silkie is the way they look as an adult. As this one grows, up, there will be many photos, and I'll ask Marissa to write a guest post about her very fun-looking bird!
Breed: Ameraucana
Parent: Matt
Name: Betsy Ross
Adult weight: 5.5 lbs.

Distinctions: so far, the loudest and most talkative of the flock. Americana chickens are also known as "easter eggers" because they lay bluish to greenish eggs.

Betsy Ross can also be credited for the sudden move into larger quarters. The photo below is what I found when I went into the garage late last week! Betsy had found her wings!

Breed: Silver-Laced Wyandotte
Parent: Josh
Name: Olive
Adult weight: 5 lbs.

Distinctions: Olive and I have bonded. She now sits in my hand without holding her still, and often won't step off it when I lower her back into the brooder.

She will have silver-tipped feathers and is a striking bird as an adult.

Breed: Buff Orpington
Parent: Jay
Name: Prissy (Lady Priscilla d'Ova)
Adult weight: 6 lbs.

Distinctions: We've read that Buff Orpington's are the "golden retrievers" of the chicken world - that is to say, they are calm, quiet and love people. Prissy is no exception, she's probably the quietest (and at the moment, the smallest) bird in our flock. And she just hangs out with Jay, cool as a chicken could be.

Breed: Black Australorpe
Parent: all of us
Name: Mifflin, or Miffy (named after the street we live on)
Adult weight: 5-7 lbs.

Distinctions: Mifflin is our "just in case bird," but don't tell her that, and we don't really talk about it. She's also totally illegal.

"Just in case of what?" you may ask, and you might follow up with "Illegal?"

The Madison chicken ordinance allow for four hens per property. While gender identifying chicks is 95% accurate at one day old, there's still that little chance we could get a male. However, Silkie birds can't be gender identified until they are six months old, so we have a 50/50 chance of getting a rooster. And, this is nature and one of the chicks could die (disease, predator). So Miffy is our just-in-case bird. But since the ordinance is really about not annoying your neighbors, and since Matt and Marissa are in on this with us, we're not concerned about breaking the ordinance.

I just hope no one from the city is reading this :)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

CUNA Mutual employee community garden opens

I had the honor and privilege of attending the grand opening ceremony for the CUNA Mutual Group employee community garden on Earth Day, 2014. A couple of years ago, a few very enthusiastic employees from CUNA Mutual visited our employee community garden at American Family Insurance. They wanted to know what we did to get ours started, and we were able to lend them technical support such as our guidelines, protocols and other resources.

So when the CUNA community gardens were scheduled to have a grand opening on the 2014 Earth Day, I immediately responded to the invitation with an enthusiastic "yes."

CUNA Mutual has a large campus with many buildings, but is largely land locked in an urban setting on Madison's west side. That didn't stop this group of enthusiastic employees. The proposed putting a community garden on top of the parking deck, which already had a large lawn. In fact, while I was up there, I remarked myself that you would never know we were standing on top of a parking ramp.
In order to overcome the thin layer of soil that was originally only meant to support grass, they are installing raised beds to add some more depth for eager vegetable plant roots. My understanding is they are going to have 40 10 x 10' garden beds. They will also build a couple of accessible garden beds, which are raised higher and have ample access to all sides for someone in a wheelchair.

I was greeted at the front door by Candace and a few other employees I have met along the way. We walked out to the garden area where many of the employee garden participants were waiting in the bright April sunshine.

Jesse Lerner from executive director of Sustain Dane, spoke about the importance of community gardens for employee health and well-being, and as an employee benefit. She also mentioned that as far she knew, this was the first rooftop employee community garden. 

In honor of Earth Day, the CUNA Mutual employees were able to purchase a sticker that allowed them to wear blue jeans on a normally business casual workday. One of the employee representatives announced that $1,700 raised from the sticker sales would be donated to the Lussier Community Education Center. Additionally, there will be two garden plots dedicated to producing food for the community center, and all employees are being asked to donate 10% of their own plot produced to the community center.
After taking a photo of the enthusiastic gardeners, I was asked to participate in a photo of people who supported the community garden project. It was great to be among my gardening peeps.

The garden is slated to be finished and ready for planting by mid to late May.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

To till or not to till?

My friend (and garden blogger) Megan Cain recently wrote an entry titled "Stop tilling your vegetable garden!"

I was amused that I read her blog the day before I rented a massive rototiller. Megan's point is to not till every year, a premise I completely agree with. There are many good reasons not till every year, and you can read all about them on her blog. However, sometimes to make an omelette, you gotta break an egg. 

During the last 12 months, I have placed our permanent raised beds in a number of locations in our backyard. In good permaculture fashion, I did a lot of observing before finally deciding to locate them at the far back of the yard, where we have the most sun. This area of the yard had been completely compacted over the years, was a fairly weedy mess, and I kind of just wanted to nuke it and start over.

So I rented an 8-hp rear-tine rototiller and a trailer and brought it home. Within an hour Jay and I frothed up the soil so much it was inches taller than the surrounding compacted ground. 

We then spread many wheelbarrows of a wood chip + coffee ground compost I had been making all winter over the tilled soil. We even put down a plank so we wouldn’t compact it. I then tilled in the compost and returned the equipment within my 4-hour rental time. 

I then dug paths, throwing the soil into where the beds would be. Our paths are going to be filled with gravel to help move water throughout the garden that will be collected from a future shed roof.

As I filled the beds in, the soil was really piling up. Once the paths were dug, I measured the beds at least 14 inches above ground level. Now I know that they will settle, but I’m going to build our raised beds 14 inches tall to leave room for lots of mulch and to be able to continue to add compost to the beds.

The three chickens we were taking care of were out the whole day and LOVED digging in the freshly tilled soil (and pooping in it too :)

Since I’m not going to reinforce the beds with walls for a couple of weeks, I covered them with a huge tarp we had leftover from a roofing project years back. Glad too, the rains a few days ago would have set back a lot of the digging and tilling work!

Photo of week-old chicks

From what I read on the hatchery's web site, our girls were born on Sunday night, so they are a week old today. We've been cuddling them daily, and they already are showing their personalities. Jay's buff orpington (called the golden retriever of chickens) is by far the calmest, and even falls asleep while Jay is holding it. Very cute.

I took their box outside the garage to get some natural light for photos, and got one good one. They are starting to grow out wing feathers already, but still have lots of fuzz on their heads and bodies.

We're going through a lot of feed, mostly because they are really messy eaters. I mean, are they bathing in the stuff? Most of our clean up is just sweeping up food crumbles they have scattered about.

Friday night Jay, Matt, Marissa and I had a lovely dinner and we continued our coop planning. We're all finding it difficult to figure out where to start, so we wrote down a bunch of our "requirements" and will likely take a big trip to the lumber yard on our first building day (May 17!)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Chick Update, Day 4

Here's a guest post, while Josh is out of town on business. I had fun on Facebook Monday, posting, "I never thought I'd hear myself say, 'my husband just left town to go pick up some chicks!'"

The girls are growing quickly! A couple of them already have feathers on their wings. We have two blond and three darker chicks. I assumed the larger blond was Prissy (Lady Priscilla d'Ova), my Buff Orpington. However, the other evening Matt stated that the Silky has five toes while the Buff only has four. Indeed, the largest of all the chicks in the Silky! Confusing, since it was supposed to be the smallest of them all. I wonder whether they hatch them early so they get a head start.

Marisa and I cleaned out the bin this morning, and I put the paper, poop and food in our compost. We checked for "pasty butt" and they're all ok. So far they're very nervous about being picked up by us. With some hand feeding and repetition, I expect they'll bond with us.

So far, three of Josh's and my Facebook friends have posted this video from YouTube and tagged us, suggesting that this will be us. Indeed, I'd love it if that were the case! This is one of the sweetest things I've seen in a while.

One of the booklets I have states the bin should be cleaned out twice a day. Marisa and I have decided that they will do evenings, and we will do mornings.

The co-parenting project is an interesting one. Coordinating with just one person (Josh) requires little effort. It will take more communication and consensus to do this with another couple. And doing this in community is just what we wanted.

Sorry no pictures this morning—more to come soon!

Guest correspondent over and out.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Five chicks

On Monday, I drove to Waterloo, Wis. to pick up five chicks. I found myself getting nervous - would they be warm enough, did we have a good brooder for them, would they all live?

When I arrived, I first saw a counter with little cartons and the sound of cheeping chicks filled the room.

There were several people in line before me, so I scanned the boxes and found ours.

We recently learned that the hatchery can't gender identify the silkies because they are so small. So on Sunday, Jay, Matt and Marissa and I decided to ask if they had another silkie. Unfortunately, they were all sold.

While I was waiting I looked around. I spotted these baskets of eggs, I'm guessing the next batch for the incubator.

Just like in the movie Mad City Chickens, I spotted the warm incubators that rotated fertilized eggs and kept them at just the right temperature.  

I paid for the birds and scurried out to my car. It was COLD and I didn't want them to get a chill. As soon as I got in my car and started it up to get the heat going, I opened the box. Inside were five fluffy cotton balls cheeping away.

The chicks are now in our brooder, a large plastic bin in our garage. Matt and Marissa have a key to get in, and I'm sure we'll all be paying many visits to ooh and ahh. They really are that cute.

Our instructions are not to handle them the first day, but then to start having them eat our of our hands and pick them up to have the imprint on us.

More to come, I'm sure.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Dust bath

I can't explain why, but I find watching the chickens take a dust bath highly amusing.

They make a little bowl in the ground, roll around in it, kick it up onto themselves (and sometimes onto their sisters) and generally look like they are having a very good time.

The practical thing is the dust get rid of or prevent mites and other external parasites.

And - it's just so "happy chicken time."

Thursday, April 10, 2014

"Where do you find them local chicks?"

As we started doing our research on getting chicks, we were surprised to find that you can mail order them! One of the reasons is because within 72 hours of hatching, chicks do not need to eat or drink. Shipping by priority mail is conveniently within that threshold.

However, after talking with Susan at Cluck the Chicken Store and reading some advice on (oh my I could spend a lot of time on that site!) we found both were emphatic about "Do not let your children open the box!" due to occasional shipping mortality. We wondered what our local options were.

Susan recommended we get our first batch at Abendroth's Hatchery in Waterloo, Wis. - just  35 minutes from Madison. They may not have the world's largest selection of chickens, but they certainly have plenty for newbies like us. And we don't have to worry about our first experience with chicks arriving with a few casualties.

At this hatchery, chicks hatch on Sunday nights, and are available on Mondays. When I spoke with someone at the hatchery, he was pretty insistent on picking up on Monday so the birds were fresh and healthy.

So Jay and I and our neighbors did some math with a calendar, and after learning that our chicks would need to be in their brooder for 6 to 8 weeks before moving into the chicken coop, we realize that we could easily order them now to be picked up on April 14 and they would be ready to move into our coop sometime after Memorial Day.

I ordered our five pullet chicks (females) to pick up in a week. Anyone want to guess how much a baby chick costs?
  • Pullets are females. You do not need a rooster for a hen to lay eggs, just to lay fertile eggs.
  • Straight run is you get what you get (they haven't been separated by gender).
  • Cockerels are makes - they'll become rosters.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Chicks ordered - time to prepare the nursery

We did it. We ordered five chicks. If all goes well, we pick them up Monday, April 14.

Following our field trip to Paoli, Matt, Marissa, Jay and I were excited about ordering our chicks. I started reading my new book, Gardening with Chickens by Jessi Bloom; Jay paged through his first aid guide; and Matt and Marissa read through the book they bought at Cluck the Chicken Store. We exchanged a few emails over the week, and settled on getting five chicks. 

Five? The city of Madison only allows four. Even though we're getting them from a local hatchery which will dramatically reduce mortality, just in case one of the chicks doesn't make it, we want to have four the same age in our flock. And as I said to Matt, “Five is okay as long as our neighbor doesn't complain” :-)

We decided that each couple would pick out a pair of birds, and of course I decided to throw in that third. Unlike going to the pet store, we simply called an order into the hatchery. The following images are what they will look like when mature; photos and descriptions are from the hatchery.

Matt and Marissa chose to get an Americana, also known as an Easter Egger, known for their bluish and greenish eggs. 

They also chose a Silkie, a smallish hen that has five toes, lays smallish eggs but are the cutest thing you ever did see.

Jay chose to get a Buff Orpington. It's a largish bird, but is quiet and is supposed to have a friendly disposition.

Actually, what we've learned is that if handled gently and with love, most chickens will become friendly.

I decided on a Silver-Laced Wyandotte. It has beautifully-tipped feathers, lays large brown eggs and will get to about five pounds.

Our fifth chicken, which I'm going to say doesn't belong to anyone in particular, is a Black Australorp, which has glossy black plumage with a greenish purple sheen, and weighs about 5 to 7 pounds.

While we read that indeed, birds of a feather flock together, we also learned that in a flock where no one looks the same, no one in particular gets picked on because everybody is different. We're hoping these birds look sufficiently different from each other that they all end up getting along.

I will write a little more about the hatchery in a future post. For now, were very excited that we made the phone call to order them.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Rubber boots make Madison debut

Rubber boots purchased
in Tena, Ecuador, 8/2005.
My new boots look almost the same.
While I probably had rubber boots when I was a kid, I don't really remember them. I do remember what we called "buckle boots," these large over-the-shoe boots that had these metal buckles that my little fingers always found difficult to open and close. 

In 2005, just before arriving for a month of volunteering on a jungle farm in Ecuador, I purchased a pair of rubber boots. The farmer suggested rubber boots would be a good idea.

I practically lived in those boots. A day didn't go by when I slipped them on to do some gardening, harvest food or simply walk around the farm.

Before I arrived at the farm, I went for a hike to a waterfall.
The rubber boots were fine footwear.

About the only time I didn't wear my rubber boots was when I went into town, and that's because we had to do a lot of walking on a gravel road to get to the bus, and walking on hard surfaces was a little uncomfortable in rubber boots. But walking on the soft jungle floor or in the mud was quite comfy in rubber boots.
While working in a river, we wore our boots even though
the river was deeper than the boots were tall.
Occasionally I "emptied" them. 

Having no need or room for rubber boots at the end of my journey in South America, and left them on the farm, right next to a dozen other pair of rubber boots left by volunteers in the same situation.

Seriously, I lived in those boots for a month.
Fast-forward to 2014, and this whole chicken business has suddenly got me thinking about rubber boots again. One aspect of bio security, and we're not talking about some kind of weird chemical warfare, is to have one set of shoes that stays in the yard and goes nowhere off the property. This prevents tracking disease into our animal environment. Rubber boots are also terribly practical. No laces, pants tuck in so they don't get dirty or wet and easy to rinse off.

And they are kinda sexy.

Planting trees in Ecuador, in my boots!
So off to Farm and Fleet where Jay and I each bought a pair of rubber boots. Fortunately, we are the same foot size, so it doesn't matter who puts on which pair :-)

What's your favorite footwear in the garden?

At left is a photo of Jay with our new boots. Just for perspective, we spent more on those boots than I spent in the entire month I lived volunteering on the jungle farm. I don't recall exactly what I spent on the South American boots there, but $8 comes to mind. These were $20/pair.