Gardening Through Droughts and Dry Weather

rain barrel drought gardeningLast summer gardens all over the country were hit hard (as were farms!) by the severe drought that parched much of the country. Utah was no exception, with dry days stretching into weeks as fires burned on locations all around our little property. Gardening through a drought is not easy – those hot dry days really take a toll on your garden. There are several things you can do to help your plants stay healthy while still conserving water. Many of these ideas are old ones, but technology has made some of them a lot easier – such as rain barrels that offer nice features like spigots, planters and more.

* Compost. Compost and other organic matter added to your soil can help to hold onto moisture in between watering or rainfall. The more organic matter in your soil, the better. Loose, moist, well-drained soil comes from lots of plant matter mixed in. You can add all kinds of things to your compost pile – shredded newspaper, coffee grounds, egg shells, kitchen waste, and yard waste. Just avoid fats, meats and dairy – as well as any diseased plants.

* Mulch. Mulch. Mulch. A nice thick layer of mulch on top of your garden bed will help to retain moisture. When you water, make sure that the water is penetrating the mulch and really soaking into the soil. Then, the mulch will help to hold the moisture in where your plants can use it. Straw, grass clippings, finished compost, and even newspaper can be used for mulch. In some cities, mulch is available from your city waste department. Just be careful not to use uncomposted wood mulch in the veggie garden as the wood will take up too much nitrogen while it breaks down, robbing your plants of their most useful fertilizer.

* Drip irrigation. Spraying water into the air on a hot day is a huge waste. Much of that water will evaporate before your plants  even feel it. Keeping the water down low will give your plants a chance to soak it up before it disappears. A drip irrigation system can help to keep the water flowing to your plant’s roots at a steady, slow pace so they can use it. Much less water is wasted.

* Water well, then wait. Once your plants are established, a good, deep soaking once or twice a week is much more effective than little daily showers that don’t get far enough into the soil. Water your garden well, then dig down an inch or so into the soil. The soil should be moist. If it is not, your plants are going to grow their roots at the top of the soil instead of down deep where they will better survive dry conditions.

* Choose water-wise plants. Whenever possible, choose plants that are adapted to a dryer climate.

* Install a rain barrel or two. It is amazing how much water can come off of even a small roof in a light rain. Even the occasional sprinkle can fill a rain barrel in minutes. Don’t stop with your home roof, you can also add rain barrel collectors to sheds, garages, and greenhouses as well. In dry areas, rain barrels will only provide supplemental water, but it will still be a big help. You can find really cool rain barrels that make them super easy to use, and some of them are also very attractive. You can see rain barrels on Amazon here: http://www.gardeningiteasy.com/rainbarrel.

With just a few simple steps, you can go a long way towards saving money on your water bill while still maintaining a thriving vegetable garden even in times of drought.

Grow Potatoes in Straw in Towers or Boxes

how to grow potatoes in a towerRaising potatoes is something I have skipped most years due to limited garden space. However, this year I decided to take advantage of an old gardening trick I had almost forgotten about. I first read about raising potatoes in straw many years ago in a Mother Earth News article. (Doesn’t every 10 year old read Mother Earth News?) More recently I have found instructions for growing potatoes vertically or in wooden boxes. So, I created three potato towers this week.

There are many ways to create your vertical potato garden. I used leftover 40 inch welded wire fencing from when I had goats. (Miss those goats.) I did not plan a particular size, I just used one scrap of fencing as it was – about 45 inches long. The other two were made from a slightly larger piece of fencing that I cut in half. They are about 36 inches long.

I cut the horizontal wires just beside the upright wire using standard needle nose pliers with built-in wire cutters. Not the best tool, but it worked. Then I used the resulting long pieces of wire sticking out on the one side to create loops to hold the cage edges together. I did a really good job wiring it together, then I remembered that I would need to harvest potatoes during the growing season. Hmm, that might be tough since I joined them so well. Might have to get creative!

I used fresh grass clippings for the first layer of covering. I just shoveled in a little dirt and compost. I put a couple of small seed potatoes in each tower. Then I added 3-4 inches of grass clippings to cover everything up. I read that using all grass clippings instead of straw can kill the potatoes if the grass clippings start to compost and heat up. So, I’ll be using straw and compost to fill the towers as the potatoes grow.

I used some late season red potatoes and some Yukon golds. I have since read that early potatoes don’t work in towers so I will probably find some others at the farm store and move the Yukons to a trench or flat straw potato garden.

The general idea is that if you let the potato plants grow about 12 inches, then add some straw and/or compost then you can just keep layering as the plants grow. They’ll keep adding new potatoes along the stems. When you want some new potatoes or at the end of the season, you can just open the tower a bit at the bottom and harvest what you need. At the end you open the tower, gather your relatively dirt-free potatoes and store them for winter. Seems simple enough. Keeping the towers from tipping in our very windy area is one challenge. Water in our very dry summers will be another.

To prevent tipping, I placed the three cages next to each other and braced the two outer cages with sticks dug into the garden box next to them. As they get taller I can also attach them to each other and the raised bed to help keep them upright.

To make watering easier, I am going to add some PVC pipes with holes drilled in them as the potatoes grow. This way when the heat and dry conditions hit, I can water the middle of the tower well. In a moister climate this would probably not be necessary, but this year I am expanding my garden a lot and our summers are very dry.

Wire fencing was the easy way for me since I already had the materials on hand. My only expenses will be for straw, PVC pipe and the seed potatoes. There is a LOT of dry grass around us in the summer – the wild grains grow up to 6 feet tall – so I will be harvesting some of that straw for my own use. That is gardening cheap and easy!

If you want to read more about how to grow potatoes vertically, here are some resources I found.

Straw Bale Potatoes

Potato Bin – 100 pounds in 4 square feet

Potato Towers Sunset Magazine

Build Potato Towers

Have you used this method before? If so, let us know how it worked for you.

Spring Gardening Discussion – How early do you plant?

wall of water plant protectorsTo tell the truth, I am not always on top of my early spring gardening. Here in Utah it is often still snowing in mid-March, and even mid-April or May, even in June! This year I am so proud of myself, I have kale, collard greens, potatoes and peas all planted. Carrots, beets, radishes and lettuce are seeded, but not yet poking up their tiny sprouts. I even got the first three tomato plants in. This is a bit risky here in the cold Rocky Mountain region. Our last frost date is mid-May, but we often get a last gasp from winter in late May with a deep frost!

So, I set out a few Wall of Water plant protectors and put out the first few plants already. I know it is risk, but I am determined to get some early tomatoes this year. I got spoiled on good tomatoes the last few years and I am just sick of nasty supermarket tomatoes (if you can call them that!). You can see in the photo that 3 of them are faded from being on their 4th season in the garden – the others are new. What a bargain for season extenders that last so long!

So, I was wondering what all of you do for spring. How early do you plant and where do you live?

Do Chickens Need Heat in Winter?

In the past when I have had chickens I have always given them some heat for the winter. Usually a heat lamp burning in one corner of the coop so they can warm up if needed. Now I am not so sure whether that is a good idea. We live in a pretty cold climate, here in the Rocky Mountains. We are 4500 feet above sea level, so winters are very cold but usually dry, despite the snow. I have done a lot of research recently on chickens and winter, and it seems that as long as they are dry and out of the wind, winter-hardy breeds can tolerate very low temperatures just fine.

Some even say that providing them with too much heat could be a serious mistake. If they are used to a warm coop, if the power goes out they will freeze to death. If they are used to a cooler coop, they won’t have a problem with the weather. However, in any case, they do need a source of fresh water. Frozen water just won’t do. So, I am thinking that a little heat to keep the water from freezing would be fine as long as they are not coddled into believing that it is eternally spring in the hen house! My past flocks continued laying well all winter – and I attribute that to a little heat and a fair amount of light.

While I feel sorry for anything outdoors in cold weather, I realized that if tiny local birds can survive the winter with no shelter, surely a 6 pound chicken in a nice backyard chicken coop can survive! The main point seems to be to choose breeds that have smaller combs so they are not as susceptible to frostbite. If you research the breeds you are looking for, you can find out which are most cold-hardy. Generally, the bigger birds with smaller combs are just fine in winter. I even read accounts of chickens doing well in a dry chicken coop in Canada with the temps at 20 below zero. Oy!

I have a few options for building a chicken coop since we are starting over from scratch. One option would be to do a chicken tractor and pull it up close to the house for the winter. This is what I did with our last two sets of chickens (one set and their coop was given away when I moved out of state briefly, the other set was given away when I was pregnant and on bed rest and not able to keep up with them). That worked well for the coldest part of the winter and I was able to run an extension cord to the coop for a light. However, I was always nervous about the possibility of a fire or problems from a wet extension cord. Turns out that coop fires are common, even when precautions have been taken.

The next possibility would be to use an existing shed for a coop. It is not an ideal location, and the shed needs a lot of work. But it is sturdy and has a good solid frame. Any heat there would have to be from an extension cord across the driveway (BAD, bad idea!) or from solar heat. Solar heat is fine most of the time in our sunny climate, but there are times when it is cloudy for days – usually right at the worst of the winter weather. This soda can solar heater or this passive solar heater both should work to provide a bit of heat.

Finally, I could build a freestanding coop a bit farther from the house. There would be no practical way of getting electricity to it, so the chickens would be on their own for heat or it too could have a solar heater of some kind installed.

So, the answer seems to be that since I chose breeds that winter well, they will be fine with a cool coop as long as I keep them dry and out of the wind. So, I’ll keep contemplating my coop options for a bit longer. Building a backyard chicken coop is easy, once you make up your mind! My chickens will be warm and dry this winter, one way or the other. Meanwhile, they are warm and dry under a heat lamp in my house until they are big enough to go outside at all!

Choosing Baby Chicks for Your Backyard Coop

chicks under lightThe easiest way to get started with a backyard coop is by choosing baby chicks. Well, the easiest part is raising them – choosing is not always easy. There are dozens of breeds of chickens and they are all so different. You can choose bantams (smaller chickens), heavy birds (used for both meat and egg-laying) or smaller bodied birds bred to focus on egg-laying.

Chicks do require some specialized care, but with a little attention and careful breed selection, you can literally have them eating right out of your hand. Hens are more expensive than chicks, and they may not be tame if they have been raised without a lot of handling. If you don’t care about how tame they are and want eggs right away, check your local classifieds or Craig’s list for laying hens. If tameness matters to you, start with  chicks.

Pullets are the tiny hens and straight run chicks are a gamble. Straight run means they are as they hatch and you’ll likely have some roosters.

Children must be supervised VERY closely with chicks. One sudden move and they can cause serious damage to a tiny chick. Our rule is one child at a time and one chick at a time – and only with an adult within arms reach. No matter how careful you are, it is always possible for a chick to die of natural causes. Be prepared to discuss the chick’s death with your child. If you are lucky, your chickens will be happy and healthy for years. Just know that some losses along the way are to be expected.

If you are lucky enough to live near a farm store or pet store that supplies chicks, you can buy them directly. This is the best way if you only want a few chicks or if you want a nice variety. We are lucky enough to be near two different farm stores even though we live in an area that is mostly suburban now.

There are many places to order chicks online. Because chicks are alive, and obviously need to be kept warm and safe, shipping is expensive. You will also need to order a minimum number of chicks from an online hatchery. One hatchery I looked at this week had a minimum of only 6 chicks (better technology keeps chicks warm in transit better – in the old days it was a 25 chick minimum to keep them warm and healthy in transit). However, their shipping cost was $45. That would have equaled or exceeded the cost of 6 chicks.

The farm cooperative (IFA if you are in the Intermountain West) has a great selection of chicks, though you need to get there fast when a shipment comes in. They post a list of breeds and what days they will arrive so you can easily plan your flock. In my case it will take 3 different trips to the store to get my full flock for this year, since I want a wide variety of breeds. If you want all of the same breed, and are looking for a common breed, it is simpler.

On my first trip, I selected a Barred Rock, a Silver-Laced Wyandotte, a Golden Wyandotte, and an Australorp. All are hardy through the winter, heavy, general-purpose, brown-egg birds. I noted that the Amerecaunas that I wanted would arrive a few days later – so all my chicks would be about the same size. Then I went home and made the mistake of researching two of the more rare breeds I had seen at the store. The next day I had to go back and get a Golden Campine and two Cuckoo Marans. The Campine so I could get some white eggs and the Marans because they lay dark brown eggs!

It is best to get all of your chicks within a few days or a week of each other so you don’t have to protect smaller birds from the bigger birds. Chickens can be ruthless in establishing a pecking order and they can cause a lot of damage quickly if a smaller or weaker bird gets wounded.

Our farm store has a minimum of 4 chicks because they are miserable if they are alone. Also, 4 chicks can keep each other warm better than one or two chicks alone. Four is a good number to start with for a backyard coop since things happen to chicks or chickens on occasion and it is better to have one more chicken than you need, than one less! It is hard to safely introduce just one or two new chicks if you need to replace one after your flock is bigger.

Look for a store that has a clean cage and food and water for the chicks. It will be a little messy because chicks are messy. Beware if there is a bad smell, if the chicks look excessively dirty or if they are generally not well-cared for. The last thing you need is to take home diseased chickens! Select bright-eyed, active chicks. If they are sleeping, they should react to noise or movement. If they are lethargic and don’t move much, something is wrong.

Take your chicks straight home and put them in a safe place under a warming light. A regular incandescent bulb works or you can use a special warming light. Be very, very careful in setting up the light. Lights get hot and can cause fires. You want to keep the chicks warm but not hot. Each week you can move the light a little farther away until they don’t need it anymore. You can find lots of great information about raising chicks at http://www.backyardchickens.com.

The best place to look for information on chicken breeds is here at MyPetChicken.com. Some breeds are easier to handle than others. Some are more winter hardy, which is important if you live in the colder areas. They have different plumage colors, different sizes, and different egg colors. You can’t go wrong with a common backyard breed such as the Rhode Island Red, Barred Rock, Australorp or Buff Orpington. If you want smaller birds, many breeds also come in bantam sizes.