Spring 2018 Bee Update

It’s springtime in New England! Which means it’s time to don our bee suits, and get into the hives!

This spring inspection was our first, closing out our first year as beekeepers! As if that wasn’t exciting enough, I haven’t been in the bee hives since early last summer, as I was far along in my pregnancy… AND, we were planning to do our first hive split! Continue reading “Spring 2018 Bee Update”

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Adding Honeybees to the Homestead

Exciting things are planned for 2017, and one of them is a long-time goal of mine! While I was able to check chicken-keeping off my list years ago, beekeeping has always been beyond us.

After moving to our new home one 2015, beekeeping became more of a reality (albeit, distant) than dream, as we began to plan for all of the things we would one day like on our property. Continue reading “Adding Honeybees to the Homestead”

June & July

Hi all! Summer is blazing by here in New England. Our days have been a flurry of activity, from chores and farm work, to days on the lake and evenings around the bonfire.image

Our garden is nearing that full-swing, daily harvest mode. We enjoyed our spring radishes and even some fresh strawberries (the few the chipmunks left for us, that is!). We’ve snacked on snap peas and enjoyed salads and fresh herbs. Now it’s time for bushels of pole beans, roasted beets, blackberries, squash, peppers, and sun-kissed tomatoes. Our garden is bursting with produce, and our pumpkin hill is loaded with massive plants featuring nearly a dozen little pumpkins.
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Our day-old chicks arrived in early June, and spent about 4-5 weeks indoors. They’re out in the coop now, and I thoroughly enjoy watching their antics.

We’ve had our share of poultry problems this time around – one chick didn’t survive shipping, and a second died suddenly a few days later. Yesterday, I went out to the coop to discover that one of my designated layers, a Silver Laced Wyandotte, had squeezed out of the coop at some point. We had thought our little runt was too big to make it through, but alas, she’s gone. We hiked around in the slim chance we could recover her, but knew it was highly unlikely. At least we went heavy on our order for chicks, to help buffer us from such losses.

We received and released Leafcutter bees last week, only to have the misfortune of unexpected torrential downpours almost immediately after. A quick check of the tubes last night revealed a few bees have stuck around, I only hope the others found safe spots to wait out the storm. Leafcutter bees are astoundingly small! I don’t see them faring well in such heavy rains.

 

July 4th also brings around Garlic Harvesting Day! Based on the weather and the appearance of our garlic, we harvested  a few days early and pulled up our bulbs on 7/1. I let them dry out and then processed and hung them on the fourth. We planted 48 cloves, and ended with a harvest of 45 bulbs! Not bad, only a loss of three, and the bulbs are much bigger than last year’s harvest! Around 50-bulbs seems to be the perfect number for us, we have a few small bulbs leftover from 2014’s harvest, just in time to transition to our new stuff! I’m letting the new garlic cure while we finish out the last of 2014’s garlic.

If you’ve never grown Garlic before, you should! It’s an easy plant-it-and-forget-it type that doesn’t require a lot of room. Check out my tips on planting and harvesting and curing garlic.

Our firewood for 2017 is all split at last, and we have been working on stacking it neatly so it can season. I am excited to have it completed so we can take a measurement and figure out how many cords are there. We have so much, I don’t see us burning it all in one winter, which is wonderful as that puts us off to a good start on 2018’s wood!
Fire wood is one of those pivotal, forever-ongoing projects for homesteaders. Do you know what wood is good for burning? Check out my guide on choosing the right wood for firewood.

In splitting the logs, we came across some really beautiful oak and spalted maple, which my husband cut down into thin round and rectangular boards. We’ll sand and smooth them a little, and then I intend on wood burning some for decorative signs. I hope to have a few available in our Etsy shop soon, along with a few other handmade items from Woodford/locally sourced materials.

Another project we just wrapped up was the Cabernet Sauvignon we started in 2014. It was finally ready for bottling, and we corked the last of it this past Sunday. We ended up with a little over (4) cases of wine total. While we still hold that our 2013 was better, but this wine came out very nice and is an enjoyable vintage. We are hoping to purchase grapes again this fall, it’s such a wonderful experience, and processing the grapes is so much fun.

There is much work ahead as the summer rolls on and fall approaches, and we also are looking forward to hosting our first Woodford Harvest Festival, an event we hope to grow and repeat annually. Our goal is for the dinner to be solely comprised of home-cooked food that is made with ingredients that we, our family and friends have grown, raised or harvested ourselves. A sort of celebration of Nature and the homesteading lives we enjoy.

Its been a wondeful summer all in all. We have had great success and some troubles too, but all are great learning experiences that we will take with us into our future adventures.

Until next time, may your gardens be plentiful and your hands busy!

 

2016 Goals

When we first purchased our dream home, almost a year ago now, I posted about some of our immediate dreams and goals for the property. In the past 10 months, we’ve put in a ton of work, and the change is drastic!

It’s exciting to reread the list of goals and see so many of them have been accomplished already! (Read all about our initial goals here: 2015 Homestead Goals) The yard has been cleared and the grass is gorgeous, the flower beds removed and prepped for this year’s vegetables and herbs, and the beaten old shed was torn down. We have since decided against building a new shed in the back, so we can scratch that one out!  For our firewood goal, we have about 3 years of wood which is excellent, and a testament to my husband’s diligent work last summer while I was on maternity leave.

The rain catch system is something we are currently working on, we have a small rain barrel for the chicken coop, and (2) 55-gallon barrels for the garden beds. It sounds like we may be getting two more, much larger containers to put under our deck as well. Being able to capture and use as much rainwater as possible for our animals and gardens  will really help our well out, especially since there is no way to know what type of Summer we will have! We managed to drain it dry last summer while obsessively tending our precious grass seed. Luckily the well recovered in only a few hours, but we want to do all we can to avoid that in the future.

We have also already begun work on the hillside which will be more play space and our orchard. It’s a big project, but we’ll take it one day at a time as always.

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Frugal Finds: My husband surprised me with two of these beautiful watering cans! Just $20 for the pair, they are large and heavy duty. I’m thrilled to have them in time for this year’s gardening season!

Starting on these projects has me thinking, what else do we want to accomplish this year? Many of our ideas are already under way, so I find myself hoping for success in all we do. I know failures and set backs will occur, and I can only hope they are minor and prove to be good learning lessons!

Without further ado, my hopes for 2016 are:

  1. Clear the hill for our orchard
  2. Plant ever greens behind stonewall for privacy (to replace the the rhodedendron we just hacked down, making our one close neighbor visible)
  3. Clean up the woods immediately surrounding our property (more wood for the stove!)
  4. Get our rain catch system set up ASAP!
  5. Build an outdoor fire pit
  6.  Successfully raise our 15 chickens from day-old chicks (let my layers be healthy and strong!)
  7. Create and maintain a healthy environment for our Mason bees, with a successful harvest of cocoons in the fall
  8. Have a successful first time harvest of oats
  9. Fill our “berry patch”with raspberries, blackberries and blueberries
  10. Ensure a good first year for our asparagus bed … We’ve done all the preparations, and the crowns should be shipping to us soon!
  11. Be blessed with another healthy acorn crop
  12. Beat the squirrels to harvesting the shagbark hickory nuts
  13. A bountiful and healthy garden, allowing us to eat well and hopefully have enough to not only share with family, but with extras to can, dehydrate and freeze
  14. Have another successful hunting season, with hopefully a harvest of at least one deer each
  15. Host our first annual harvest/homestead festival for family and friends
  16. Watch our daughter continue to grow and learn, surrounded by all the beauty and fun of nature

2016 has been kind to us thus far, with a very gentle winter. I do get nervous thinking about what the weather will be like for the rest of the year, as we pass 50-60 degree days already, but it is so completely out of my hands, that I don’t let it bother me. All I can do is plan, prepare and pray for a bountiful year!

 

Want to see what we have done so far, and how Woodford has changed? Check out our Creating Our Homestead page!

Warm December

The past two months have been unseasonably warm for New England. It’s mid-December but I find myself with dirt under my nails and a rake in my hand. Not that I am complaining, by any means!

The warm temperatures have allowed my husband and I (with our now 6.5mo daughter on my back, of course!) to get a jump start on some of our Spring projects. This past week we have been clearing the brush, leaves and thorny bushes from the area behind and to the left of our coop. It started as a general clean up, but as our vision for the spot developed, so did our frevor to get it as ready for planting in the spring as possible.

Some of you may recall that I attempted to get more garden space from the yard before we put down grass seed (ok, maybe I was a little crazy… But who needs a yard when you could have more farmland?!). I am happy to say that this newly cleared land will be another garden spot, where I can plant double (maybe even triple!) the amount of corn I was planning on putting out back, a few rows of oat straw, and the berry patch we have been dreaming of since we first planted a raspberry bush at our last house.

I have been learning to operate our new tractor, which was tricky at first since I couldn’t even reach the pedals, but that’s nothing a blanket and foam pad couldn’t fix! 😉

We also processed our remaining three hens, which was of course bittersweet. It’s good to have such quality, home raised meat in the freezer, but it is difficult not to become attached to an animal you have cared for. We are looking forward to adding a dozen new chickens next year, with the goal of keeping four layers. I have had fun picking out new breeds, picking hardy birds that will also lay a variety of egg colors.

One of the craziest parts of this warm fall is looking past our Christmas tree and seeing vibrant, lush green grass behind it! It seems quite surreal. After months of preparations – gathering, splitting and stacking wood, preparing kindling bundles, putting my gardening tools to bed, etc.- I am more than ready for winter already. It seems like it will never begin, although I tell myself not to be too eager as I’ll be wishing for Spring in the same fashion soon enough, I’m sure.

We have a lot of projects to do to keep ourselves busy once winter arrives: finishing our laundry area in the basement, finally organizing and setting up my craft room, finalizing garden designs and ordering any final seeds/plants and of course, starting out seedlings in February. We’ve started to enjoy those heartier meals on cool days, homemade cookies and pasta, slow cooked roasts and curry braised pheasant and the smell of the wood stove burning; there are books to read, scarves and baby booties to knit and the endless joy of watching our daughter grow a little more each day. Like I said, I’m ready for winter!

 

 

 

Spring Cleaning & Soft Shell Eggs

This weekend has been a flurry of activity as my husband and I continue packing for the big move into our dream home, and did some spring cleaning at our current home.

This winter was tough, as some winters can be. With snow storm after snow storm, and my constantly growing pregnant belly, it was difficult to squeeze between the dog run and coop to do the necessary coop cleaning. I’m not proud when I say I did a much less acceptable job this year than last year, so our spring coop cleaning required some more in depth scraping and shoveling than usual.
I spent a good 1.5-2 hours removing the plastic tarp pieces from the coop, shoveling and scraping out old hay, pine shavings and chicken poop, and dealing with the chickens who were both so curious that they had to get right up in my face while I cleaned, and in turn would then freak out when I moved a garden tool and go flying and screaming across the yard. *smh* Chickens . . . you never truly understand the meaning of “what are you, chicken?” when referring to someone’s fear until you have kept chickens.

In preparation for our move this year, I split, propagated and dug up any perennials herbs and trees that were coming with us. My husband & I loaded up our trailer with plants, planter boxes and other outdoor equipment to store at my in-laws until we close on the new house. I was disheartened to see that the container I put my Burdock in did not drain well (despite all the rocks I put at the bottom!) and the root had rotted away . . . the root had nearly doubled in size! What a great harvest I would have had this year. Oh well!

Some our trees are in desperate needs of being planted in the ground, as they started rooting through the bottom of their pots and into the ground. I knew the pots I had were snug and would only be a temporary solution, so I am very, very grateful that we are able to move this Spring while the weather is cool and they will take to a transplanting well.

One of our other troubles this Spring is our dear Ms. Sassafras. She had molted a little in the early winter, and then stopped. While she never regained the nice tail feathers she had prior to that, she appeared to be done. Well she is molting again! Her entire back side is bare, although she acts as sassy as she always has! Despite her molting, she is still producing eggs, er well . . . what should be eggs. For the past week she has laid soft shell eggs, which is basically like finding the egg yolk swimming in the hay of the nesting box, with what appears to be a popped balloon but is in fact the shell.

Saturday she had some real difficulty passing the egg, and instead of going to the nesting box, actually started trying to lay it right in the middle of the yard. I guess she felt like I do sometimes when I’m trying to run my 7-month pregnant body to the bathroom and I think “Omg, I’m not going to make it!” Ha!
In any event, it was a good reminder that sometimes chickens need more attention and help than they let on. I watched Sassy attempt to push out the egg for a long time, and finally decided I needed to get involved.
I found myself kneeling on the ground, bent over with my head in the dirt (and Pogo pecking at my braid because she has made it clear she does NOT approve of me checking Sassy’s backside) and gently tugging on the soft shell when Sassy pushed. For something that you would think would be easier than laying a real egg, she sure had a tough time and the dry skin from her molting had cracked and bled a little, my poor baby! Together we got the egg out. I checked the egg shell to make sure it was whole, and that there were no pieces left inside her vent that could cause infection.
Immediately after, she went right back to pecking around and acting normal, another good sign. I’m keeping a close eye on her until she stops laying, or starts laying “real” eggs again, but so far she has been normal and perky since Sunday.
I have to admit, as much as I hate seeing my birds struggle through something, or not feel well, I love these opportunities to get involved as well as to witness the wonderful bond that all the chickens have. After Sassy laid the soft shell egg, her sisters came around to see what had happened, and to help groom and clean Sassy up. The defensiveness that Pogo displays in making sure I am not hurting Sassy, as annoying as it may be to be pecked in the head a few times, is sweet and endearing.
Spring brings so many wonderful things – the excitement of the return of favorite plants, the opportunity to plan and plant a new garden (and this time, at our new house!) and the all-time favorite of watching chickens scratch and dig in the freshly thawed ground, clucking and talking to each other. Moments like those make up for all the stir-crazy, cabin-fever feelings of winter!

Winter Chicken Keeping Tips

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive about my chickens is “What do you do with them in the winter?”. This especially important since we live in New England where you never know what winter will bring. With the recent blizzard we had (albeit, hyped up to sound way worse than it was), I figured now was as good a time as any to share our winter chicken keeping tips.

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No, I don’t use a heat lamp, space heater, or anything crazy. Just stop and think about it for a few minutes — chickens have been around for forever, and were kept successfully in decades without electricity or fancy heating elements! In fact, those heating methods can be more dangerous for your chickens than the temperatures themselves. A curious chicken can (and most certainly will) peck at a heat lamp bulb if it is within reach. You don’t want your beautiful bird getting a face full of glass, or worse! There is also the risk of fire with heaters — you’re basically putting something REALLY hot in a building made of wood that is stuffed with wood shavings and hay .  . . not the best idea.

So I figured I would share what we do to ensure our girls have a warm coop for the winter, hopefully it will help all those who are considering keeping chickens one day, or who are looking for new tips or tricks.

1) Plastic Sheeting

This stuff is our #1 defense against the cold for our girls. Worse than the actual temperature is the wind. I buy a roll of sheeting every year (although last year, I actually cut and reused the plastic bag our new mattress had come in and that worked just great!) and staple it over all the openings. You want to make sure you are careful to overlap over any seams or openings, but still allowing for access to the interior. I completely covered over one of the front doors, and then cut around the latch on the other side so I could still clean out the upstairs level and refill their water. The better job you do, the less wind and water that can get it!

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It is important to remember that the coop still needs ventilation however. An air-tight coop can lead to respiratory issue, so make sure they are able to get fresh air from somewhere. We drilled a few holes in a post that is covered by the roof’s overhang, so they can get airflow but the wind won’t be blowing directly in, carrying snow or rain with it. Our girls also have 24/7 access to their yard (which is secure from predators) so they can go out and about when they want to.

2) Hay

Maybe this seems obvious, but it’s so true. Hay is your best friend! My husband and I buy two bales from a local farm every fall. Since there is a gap between our chicken coop and the stockade fence around our garden, I stuff hay in there like a mad man. Don’t be shy when stuffing either — if you don’t stuff enough, it will sag over time and you’ll find yourself out there in negative temperatures stuffing more in! I use a hoe to help pack it down, and literally climbed up on top of the coop and stuffed more in. I kept checking inside the coop to make sure there weren’t any gaps.

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I then give the girls a generous amount of hay in their nesting box, laying box, upstairs and downstairs levels, and I refresh this as needed throughout the winter. It’s adorable to watch them build their little sitting nests and snuggle in during cold days.

3) Heated Cable

My husband came up with this plan to keep the waterer from freezing, and it works like a dream. The cable only lets off enough heat to keep the water above freezing, but isn’t a danger to the chickens. We run an outdoor extension wire along the fence (so it’s not pretty, but hey it works!) and through an unused dryer vent to a socket in the basement. The cable wraps around the waterer, with a portion laying directly in the tray.  Super simple and cost effective as we didn’t need to invest in anything expensive.

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The first year we tried the cookie-tin/light bulb idea that you may have seen, but found it would only keep the tray from freezing which meant nothing once the top had frozen solid! It was also hard to find a lightbulb that fit, but didn’t throw off too much heat.

4) Know your Chickens!

You know your chickens best, and are the expert on their quirks and personalities. If you notice that one of your hens isn’t acting like her usual self, check her out as soon as possible. A chicken’s comb should be upright and bright red, indicating a healthy blood flow. If you go out and your chicken has a pale comb, and it is flopping over, you’ll want to start looking her over to find out what is wrong.

This is another reason that you are the best judge. 3 out of my 4 hens have bright, bold red combs, while my Rhode Island Red (Pogo) has a low-profile, paler comb. It’s just how she is, but it’s important to know what is normal for your chickens.

You should also monitor their feet for color changes or injuries. Their feet should be clean and a healthy color — no yellowing or black. Again, it is important to know your chickens because my California Gray (Morgan) has feet and legs that are naturally more yellow than those of her sisters.

Attitude, movement and diet are also good indicators. If you chicken is moping around, won’t nibble on even their favorite snack, or hardly moves, these are good signs that something is a miss.

Experienced chicken keepers know that the above are good indicators that something is wrong, but can also be warning signs for multiple reasons. This again why you as the chicken-mama are so important! You know where they have been, what they have been eating, and their living conditions. Make sure that if you see something wrong, you evaluate the situation first: Do they have plenty of food and fresh water? Remember that chickens need additional protein to keep the bodies warm, so it is a good idea to supplement their feed. My husband I grow fodder for them, using a mix of oats and red barley, and they get one healthy tray full every day. We also give them plenty of veggie/fruit scraps and sunflower seeds.

Make sure the coop is dry, safe and most importantly – clean. Don’t let their waste pile up inside, that’s just asking for problems. Sure it sucks to scoop poop out on cold days when you’re standing knee-high in snow, but hey, that’s what chicken-raising is!

I hope my tips can help some new chicken keepers out there! We learned a lot by trial and error, and had our own mini freak out of “what do we do?!” when we fell in love with the hens we were originally supposed to eat, and now had to figure out how to winterize the coop. Each coop and yard set up is different too, so tweak these ideas to work for you, and share your successes!

All in all, it’s a little prep work that goes a long way towards keeping those chickens warm all winter! We’ve been very lucky that by keeping them cozy, and upping their fodder intake, we get a consistent quantity of eggs throughout the winter versus having the hens quit laying entirely until Spring, which is normal.

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