Red Bucket Farm is an urban farm on a quarter acre property in an average residential neighborhood. We are located in Wisconsin, USDA Zone 5. We focus on chickens, bees, orchard fruit, and raised garden beds for fruits and veggies. We hope to reduce our footprint on the planet by growing some of our food, reducing our use of fossil fuels, and gardening with sustainable practices. Thanks for visiting!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Houdini the Chicken

Look closely at the photo above. Notice that two chickens are inside the fence. One is not. That hen, formerly known as Hyacinth, is now renamed Houdini. Somehow she magically appears on the wrong side of the fence. It's a new trick and she's very fond of it. She loves the green grass outside the chicken yard, and she gets great pleasure in irritating the other girls who can't figure out how to escape.

Most of you know that the chickens at Red Bucket Farm are pampered. They live in a 6'x8' shelter that's nearly as secure as Fort Knox. Although they have ample space in their casa gallina, they also get plenty of time in the chicken yard, which is a capacious 20'x30'. The yard is protected by a three foot wire fence and bird netting above. The whole point is to keep the girls safe from predators (dogs, coons, hawks, owls, coyote).

But Hyacinth/Houdini has a chicken brain, and she's focused on the grass over the fence. I suspect we'll be adding additional fencing to keep Houdini safely inside the yard with her friends. Silly chicken.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Beehives are One Month Old

Last month we built the beeyard and established our first beehives. In the photo above you can see that our hives are top bar hives (as opposed to the stacked boxes known as Langstroth hives). Notice the little dish of rocks between the hives. It's filled with water for the bees so they won't bother the neighbor's birdbath.

On April 29 we poured three pounds (about 10,000) bees into each hive. You can read my blog from that day for the full details.

We had some confusion when we installed the queen bee into the green hive. She was released directly into the hive without protection. We were at risk of losing her because the worker bees may not have fully bonded with her yet, which means that they might kill her. I'm happy to report that they quickly began building comb. Although the photograph above isn't very good, perhaps you can see there are ten combs hanging from the top bars. These combs are covered in bees, and I believe there are eggs and brood present.
The queen was properly installed in the blue hive, meaning that she was protected in her little queen cage within the hive. The worker bees needed to eat their way through a candy plug to release the queen, allowing them all a little more time to bond. The blue hive (seen above) is also doing well, but it seems to be a week or so behind the other. There are nine top bars of pure white comb. This hive probably has eggs and brood, but it must be located more to the center of the comb; the edges of the comb visible in the observation window are still clean and white.

It's fascinating to watch the bees enter and exit the hives. Since the weather has been so chilly, the bees are quiet until 11am or even noon. Once the temperature is near 60 degrees, the girls get busy. They exit the hive and swoop way up in the air for departure, and when they come home again they seem to dive from great heights. On sunny days there is a lot of activity. Although I walk right past the entrance of the green hive on my way to the greenhouse and the chicken coop, the bees don't seem to notice me or the dog. 

Bee watching is very relaxing and we're beginning to see increased pollination in the cherry trees. So far, it's pretty cool.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Chem Lawn Season is Here

Last week Thursday was a gorgeous day here at Red Bucket Farm. The biddies and pullets were grazing in the chicken yard, bees were foraging and building comb, laundry was drying on the line in a brisk breeze, and I set out 8 brussels sprout plants and 14 tomato plants from the greenhouse into the raised beds. The whole farm felt happy and good.

Then the chemical lawn truck pulled up in front of my neighbor's house and before I knew it some dude in aviator sunglasses was spraying chemicals all over everything, droplets flying in the breeze and stinking up the vicinity. I dashed outside to beg for some tiny consideration. I pointed out the animals, beehives, crops and laundry as politely as I could considering my desperation. I begged him to keep the spray low to the ground and away from my property. He didn't say a word, but he nodded and moved a few feet away from the property line.

Michael Pollan tells us in his book Second Nature that Americans spend $30 billion each year on lawn chemicals. The trend for large expanses of green lawns began after the Civil War when suburban areas were beginning to develop. The idea was that green lawns would unify a neighborhood. Large expanses of open lawn were a reaction to the privately walled gardens of England. Common folks still had no grass with a few chickens and a vegetable garden, but the wealthy suburbs had grass lawns.

Thanks to corporate marketing, the golf course lawn has now become an American obsession. I cannot imagine why anybody would spend hundreds of dollars every year to pour chemicals on the lawn, which makes the grass grow faster and creates additional mowing. It's self-perpetuating and a ridiculous waste of money and energy, not to mention the damage to the environment.

I've made a few signs to try to protect my urban farm from airborne chemicals. Meanwhile, I'm planning to plant clover in the bare spots of my yard. Clover is good for the bees and adds nitrogen to the soil. Remember sitting in the lawn on hot summer days looking for that lucky four leaf clover? Or picking a bouquet of beautiful yellow dandelions to bring home to mom?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Seasonal Menu Changes

If you're anything like me, you enjoy the menu changes that come naturally with the change of season. Nothing tastes better than a bowl of warm soup and homemade bread on a cold November day, unless it's fresh rhubarb crisp in June. Grilled vegetables in August are heavenly.

Now that we're making a bigger effort to grow more of our own food and eat locally, it takes a bigger commitment to eat whatever is in season. Sure, we can buy grapes grown in South America and shipped thousands of miles, but it's very satisfying to choose local food instead.

Early this spring I planted spinach and swiss chard. These crops are easy to grow and have done well in the shelter of the unheated greenhouse. I'm beginning to transition to summer crops in the greenhouse, and thus it is time to harvest the spring greens. So, how many ways can you think to prepare these lovely greens?
A green leafy salad with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar is simple and lovely. We've made more than one version of spinach pie and swiss chard gratin, and recently we enjoyed something called "greens and sweet onion pie with yeasted olive oil pastry" from Martha Rose Shulman's Mediterranean Harvest cookbook. Tonight we made pizza with pesto, swiss chard, feta and mushrooms (shown above).

So far, I haven't gotten tired of the greens. In fact, I've planted more seeds in the raised beds between rows of peas and beans. I'll harvest the leafy greens when the peas and beans get so big that they shadow the crops beneath. It's very satisfying to bring in dinner from the backyard farm.

If you have suggestions for swiss chard and spinach, we're open to new ideas.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Raised Garden Beds

The weather is finally cooperating! I've started setting out seedlings into the garden beds. This morning I planted the Brussels sprouts and later this evening I hope to plant the tomatoes.

Most of my garden beds are raised beds. The advantages are many. For me, the main advantage is knowing where not to step. Walking on garden beds compacts the soil, reducing the tiny spaces for air and water, and ultimately restricting root growth.

Raised beds also offer more efficient use of space. They're much easier to weed and mulch. And it's slightly easier on my back, too.

My first four raised beds were 4x8 feet, which was an efficient use of lumber. I found it a little difficult to reach into the center of these beds, so the new beds added this spring are 3x12 feet. Our raised beds are simply a wooden frame resting on the ground. We call it a custom gravity mount. (Yes, that's my attempt at humor.) Keep the construction simple.  

Building raised beds might be slightly more labor-intensive than traditional ground-level beds, but the installation is long lasting and well worth the trouble. I recommend it!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Crowded in the Greenhouse

Our small unheated greenhouse is proving to be a wonderful gardening tool. Today it is so crowded with seedlings and potted plants that I can barely step inside to water. I'm ready to begin setting plants into the raised beds outdoors, but the weather still isn't cooperating and we're expecting frost again tonight. The greenhouse has become a holding zone until we can plant outdoors.
The biggest challenge in the greenhouse is maintaining acceptable temperatures. On a sunny day, it can easily reach 100 degrees in there, far too warm for my little seedlings. I raise the roof vent in the morning and open the sliding door to allow air exchange. By late afternoon I'm closing it again to retain heat through the night. Also, my 30 gallon water storage (black plastic garbage can) absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night. I'll remove this in another month, but for now it helps moderate temperatures.

If you haven't space for a green house, a cold frame can also help raise seedlings. With a little imagination you can fashion these small garden structures from recycled items. This is my first spring with the greenhouse. I'm so grateful to have it!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Warning: Garlic Mustard

In the photo above, can you see the little white flower in the foreground? It looks pretty harmless, doesn't it? It's called garlic mustard and it came to the New World with our European ancestors who grew it like any other herb. In Europe, garlic mustard has natural predators to keep it in check, but on this side of the pond the stuff goes crazy.
The woods immediately behind my house are overrun with garlic mustard. In the photo above, you can see that literally nothing else grows in the understory. I've hand weeded that very plot only to find it overgrown again the following spring. One teeny garlic mustard flower produced gazillions of seeds. This wicked invasive is crowding out our native wildflowers and so far there is no solution to the problem.

At this point, it's my goal to keep garlic mustard out of my yard and garden beds, but it's not easy. I'm even pulling the stuff out of the raised bed in my greenhouse! Garlic mustard can't be composted because its seeds won't cook properly in the heat of the compost pile. Garlic mustard must be sent to the landfilled in sealed bags. It comes up quickly in the spring. I find it green beneath the snow in February. It's blooming now and will reach it's peak in the next month or so. At about three feet tall, you simply can't miss it. By the end of June, it all dies down and allows us to foget about it for a while, but it will be back next year with a vengeance.

I try to not let it get me down. Controlling it seems hopeless, but I can't give up hope. If you see the nasty stuff, pull it out by its roots and throw it in your garbage can. Perhaps someday there will be a better solution. Meanwhile, we need to protect our native wildflowers by hand.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Spring Blossoms

We have the usual spring blossoms at Red Bucket Farm---tulips, daffodils, trillium, bleeding heart, wood violets, jack-in-the-pulpit, and dandelions (good for the bees).

I'm thrilled to report that the cherry trees and the established peach tree are blooming. And yes, the bees are busy pollinating.

We also have good old fashioned spring crops like rhubarb and asparagus that have just emerged. The snap peas have sprouted in the raised bed along with spinach and swiss chard. Inside the greenhouse, the potted blueberries are blooming well ahead of the outdoor blueberry bushes.

My currant bushes have been established for a few years. They were the first "crop" that I attempted to grow. I appreciate these old standards that have somehow fallen out of fashion. I love currant jam. And if you've never tasted currant sauce on vanilla ice cream, well, you're missing out on something special.

I'd stay and chat, but there's work on the farm. Thanks for visiting!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Flock Management: Separating the Girls

If you've been following the news at Red Bucket Farm, you already know that we have three mature laying hens and this spring's baby chicks. The chicks (hatched March 28) are now getting pretty big for the brooder box. Unfortunately, we can't incorporate them into the main flock and chicken coop until they are very nearly the same size as the mature hens. It might be June or July before we can allow them all together or the big girls will pick on the little ones.

As an interim measure, we divided the fenced chicken yard into two sections. In the photo above, you can see the main chicken coop on the left with the big hens grazing. On the right, you can see our make-shift shelter for the chicks covered with a blue tarp. They have their own food and water beneath the tarp, and a portion of chicken yard to poke around in. The fence between them is temporary; we'll remove that in a few weeks and hope they don't notice.

Meanwhile, the big girls certainly have noticed! Rosie the Redstar complains all day every day. Braaawk-buk-buk-buk. I hope that she'll get used to the little girls.

The chicks still go in their brooder box at night. The daytime trips to the chicken yard are good for them, but their shelter is by no means predator proof, so we scoop them up and return them to the garage at night.

By the way, if you're ever tempted to raise chicks inside your house, think twice. It took me hours to clean the office after we moved the brooder box to the garage. A thick layer of dust, almost like drywall dust, covered everything. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Compost Awareness

This week is International Compost Awareness Week, sponsored by the US Composting Council. It's an opportunity to educate about the benefits of composting.

We tried composting years ago and we were terrible at it. Our compost bins were just a matted, dense pile of yard waste that never quite broke down to be the crumbly golden substance it was purported to be. Eventually we gave it up.

Last spring we began composting again in earnest. We got a little smarter about it and realized that our previous attempts didn't contain all the right ingredients.

A compost pile needs brown materials that are high in carbon: ashes, wood, bark, shredded cardboard, fruit waste, leaves, peanut shells, peat moss, pine needles, sawdust, straw, vegetable stalks.

The compost pile also needs green materials that are high in nitrogen: clover, coffee grounds, food waste, garden waste, grass clippings, hay, hedge clippings, manures, seaweed, vegetable scraps, weeds without seeds.

Remember, compost needs both green materials and brown materials.

Since we began composting, I've noticed that I rarely use the garbage disposal in my kitchen. I have a small bucket on the counter where I save all the kitchen scraps such as fruits and veggie trimmings, tea bags, and egg shells. Also, I've noticed that composting has reduced the amount of garbage that goes to the curb on garbage days.

We have three compost bins. One is for the current collection pile. We add scraps to it daily and turn it over on the weekends, usually by hauling out much of it on a tarp and putting it back in the bin. The second pile has been retired and is gently decomposing. That one gets turned less frequently. The third bin is compost ready to be sifted and put to good use.

Compost bins at the garden center can be pricey, but it's easy to get creative. Old pallets make a good bin, or any other scrap lumber. We've got our eyes on a pile of discarded deck railing down the street which will expand and improve our current system.

If you live in an apartment or small home, you can try worm composting. The worms will help percolate your small pile of scraps and turn it into wonderful fertilizer for your container plants.

Please do your part to reduce, reuse and recyle. Composting is easy!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Home Sweet Hive

On Tuesday we decided to open the beehives just long enough to remove the queen cages and check on the sugar syrup feeders. It was a cold day, hovering around 43 degrees, a bit too chilly for the bees to leave the hive. We thought it would be a little easier to accomplish our task on a cool day. Also, we didn't want to leave the queen cages in the hive too long or the bees would begin to build comb around them. This might result in beautiful free-form comb resembling modern art, but it makes it nearly impossible to manage the hive. We didn't want to stall too long.

The green hive was relatively simple. The queen had been inadvertently released on Friday during installation, and the hive has been happily building comb for a few days. The queen cage was empty on the floor of the hive. We were able to move top bars and grab the queen cage without disturbing their comb-building cluster.

The blue hive was another story. The queen cage was suspended between two top bars and fastened with a thumb tack. Bees were still clustered around the queen cage, but we felt sure the queen had been released because the whole cluster had slowly moved down the hive. After we got the queen cage unattached from the top bars, we had to carefully remove the clinging bees. It wasn't so easy to accomplish because a few hundred bees were pretty angry at us for disturbing their peace. Since we're new at this, we probably weren't as calm as we might have been and we smushed a few bees in the process. It was very exciting.

Yesterday the weather warmed into the 60s and the hives were very busy. The photo above shows a bee getting a drink of water at the rock & water dish situated between the hives.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Chicken Ailments

In the midst of all the flurry over the honeybees, one of our laying hens has been slightly ill. Hyacinth the Easter Egger had diarrhea last week beginning on Thursday. She seemed pretty normal, but by Sunday she was beginning to lose energy.

I learned that Hyacinth very likely has coccidiosis, an intestinal parasite that is carried through the feces. An animal can build resistance to coccidiosis or it can just as easily perish. A friend recommended that I treat her with Amprolium, which is administered in her water and would benefit all the laying hens.

By the time I made it to the farm supply store on Monday morning, all the girls seemed happy and normal again. I've still got the amprolium for next time, but right now I feel lucky that everybody is fine.

We realized that when we fenced in the chicken yard last month, we included our compost bins inside the chicken yard. After all, the girls are excellent at constantly turning over the compost, and they enjoy the kitchen scraps. Unfortunately, they also are more exposed to their own waste in the compost bin. Last night we relocated the icky compost outside the the chicken yard.

Meanwhile, one of the baby chicks, Squill the Speckled Sussex, has curley toe. Her outside toe on both feet curls out rather than facing forward. This could be genetic. It might progress and cripple her, or it might not.
We splinted her toe with a popsicle stick and medical tape. This might have worked if the other baby chicks hadn't immediately decided to attack her and the splint. Ultimately, we decided to live with the curley toe untreated and hope for the best. So far, so good.

Many thanks to my friend Myron, who is always compassionate and knowledgeable about these things.