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!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Putting Food By

Strawberries, currants and cherries, oh my! At this time of year, we're blessed with more fruit than we can eat, so we engage in a process our great-grandmothers would have called "putting food by." Canning food is not difficult and it allows us to preserve food for use over the winter months without the extra energy required for refrigeration and freezing.

In the last couple of weeks I've canned rhubarb jam, apricot jam, balsamic strawberry jam, and cherry jam; also peach rum sauce, currant sauce and rhubarb sauce.

A few years ago I asked my friend Diana how she made all her jams and preserves. "I just buy a package of Sure-Jell and follow the directions," she replied. Her off-hand manner put me at ease. I bought a book on home preserving and a basic water canner at the farm supply store. Then I got to work. 

At first I was a little overwhelmed with getting all the steps right. But after a few batches of jam, I began to realize that it was a simple pattern to follow. Clean and slice fruit, heat it with pectin and lemon juice, add sugar and boil for a minute or two. Pour hot jam into hot canning jars and process in the water bath.

The work is sometimes hot and tedious. It takes hours to pick all those tiny currants off the vine! I recommend good music and a large fan. Allow yourself to get into the zen of food preparation. Soon your pantry will be filled with chemical-free fruits for year-round pleasure.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Foraging for Cherries

Here at Red Bucket Farm we have three cherry trees in our orchard in the side yard. The trees are different varieties of sour pie cherries---North Star, Montmorency and Meteor---although I have no idea which tree is which variety. (Note to self: write it down!) In the photo above, the scrawny tree in the foreground is the tree which provides the most fruit, while the largest tree at the end of the line provides rather little fruit. These cherry trees were planted from bare root stock about four years ago.

As an urban farmer in a residential neighborhood, it's easy to see what my neighbors are growing. For several years, I've noticed a beautiful cherry tree at a home several blocks from my house. Every spring, I notice that tree bloom and produce fruit. I also watch the fruit slowly overripen and fall to the ground. Last year I nearly knocked on their door to ask if I could harvest the fruit, but I never quite mustered the courage or time to do it.

Last week I sorta-kinda got my chance. We were walking the dog at dusk past the house with the cherry tree. In the diminishing light I noticed that the cherry tree had been heavily pruned. The branches, laden with fruit, were laying in a pile at the curb. We quickly walked the dog home and returned with the car, squeezing the awkward branches into the trunk of our old economy sedan.

When we got the branches home, we realized that most of the fruit was not quite ready to harvest. We propped up the branches in a five gallon bucket of water and hoped that the fruit would finish maturing in a few days. So far, this seems to be working. At least half of the fruit is turning pink and red. The other half is shriveling, but we'll salvage what we can.

Meanwhile, another seemingly neglected cherry tree has caught my attention. I wonder if I'll be knocking on any doors?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Farm Haiku

For our family vacation a few years ago, we took a driving trip from Wisconsin to Niagara Falls, camping at state and provincial parks along the way. When we got bored on the long drive, we began writing poetry that we called camping haiku. For some reason which was hilarious at the time, we ended every poem with "pancakes for breakfast."

In order to keep my teenager's brain from turning to mush over the summer, we've started writing farm haiku. Anybody can write haiku. The first line is five syllables, the second line is seven syllables, and the third line is back to five syllables. So here we go. Keep your sense of humor with you.

Chickens like to scratch
They eat grubs and other things
Bees buzzing around

Big dog chasing chicks
Chicks go flying and squawking
Bees buzzing around

Snap peas shimmer green
Strawberries glowing bright red
Bees buzzing around

Baby wrens chirping
Laundry swaying in the breeze
Bees buzzing around

Currants growing wild
Gooseberries unproductive
Bees buzzing around

Herbs in the greenhouse
Plants growing in the garden
Bees buzzing around

Fresh jam in kitchen
Chickens playing in sand bath
Bees buzzing around

Hum growing louder
Bees forming a basketball
Bees swarming around

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Yesterday afternoon I noticed a large cloud of bees flying low over the bee yard. A few thousand of my honeybees were circling over the hives. I sensed no alarm and the activity settled down to normal after about ten minutes. Little did I know that it was a dress rehearsal for today's performance.

Around 8:30 this morning I was tending my chickens in the lower part of my yard when I heard an unusual humming-buzzing sound. I looked out the chicken coop and saw thousands of my honeybees leaving one hive, at least twice as many bees as yesterday. I rushed up to the beeyard and witnessed them exiting the hive as fast as they could, as if the hive was on fire. The bees circled over the yard but they weren't staying low like they did yesterday. The swarm grew larger and higher and louder, and yet I sensed no panic, not for me or the bees. I stood among them completely amazed.

Finally I stepped back to get a better view. The bees were rising to the tops of the trees in my neighboring woods. Over the course of about thirty minutes, the swarm became increasingly compact and more organized. A mass of bees about the size of a basketball, or perhaps a little larger, finally settled in the very top of a tree immediately behind my yard. And now, five hours later, they are still there.

This is called swarming and it is a naturally occuring phenomenon. When the bees feel too cramped in their home, some of them leave and take the queen with them. They are homeless now and will send out scouts to look for a new home, perhaps a hollow tree in the woods. The swarm may move a few times before finding a permanent location.

We're surprised that they swarmed. After all, these two hives were established at the end of April and their hive boxes are only half full. The remaining bees in that hive are probably already grooming a new queen, and they will continue to build the hive. I'll never know why they left but I'm so grateful to have witnessed the event.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Homemade Yogurt

Most of the year we enjoy a few strawberries with our yogurt, but in June we appreciate a little yogurt with our bowl of strawberries. Either way, you need to know how to make yogurt at home. It's easy and requires no special equipment. I make yogurt in quart-sized canning jars. I usually make two quarts at a time.

Measure eight cups of milk into a saucepan and heat it up to 180 degrees, or just shy of  boiling. Then cool it down to 110 degrees, which takes about an hour. At our house, we cover the saucepan with a cooling rack to keep the cats out of mischief, and stir every 15 minutes or so. When it reaches 110 degrees, stir in a tablespoon or two of yogurt. This is your "starter," similar to making sour dough bread. It makes a difference if you purchase a nice starter, perhaps a Greek yogurt.

Pour the mixture into quart canning jars. You need to keep it at about 110 degrees for several hours. Our grandmothers would have put it on the pilot light at the back of the stove top. You might use your slow cooker as a warm bath, or maybe you can keep your oven cool. I place my quart jars on an electric heating pad and then cover with a towel to hold in the heat. Hold the mixture at a warm temp for several hours, then transfer to the refrigerator where it will keep nicely for a couple of weeks.

Making yogurt at home is easy, saves money, and gives you control over the fat content of your yogurt. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sustainable Partying

Like many of you, we recently hosted a graduation party for our high school senior. We wanted to provide homemade food and serve it to approximately 60 guests without contributing unnecessary garbage to the local landfill.

The menu was all-American: brats and buns, chicken wings, potato salad, fruit salad, baked beans, bulgur pilaf, chips, hummus, cheese dip, etc. We served dinner on regular dishes and used normal stainless tableware. (Yes, we had to borrow to accumulate enough.) We always use cloth napkins at our house and have acquired a good pile of them, mostly homemade. All beverages were served in their recyclable cans or bottles.

At the end of the evening, we were pleased that our garbage cans were no more crowded than usual. When corporate America wants you to think that you'll need disposable plates, cups, napkins and tableware for your next party, don't believe it!

Monday, June 20, 2011


Due to graduation season in my neighborhood, it's been ten days since my last blog update and the strawberries have gone crazy. I love strawberries so much that I wish I could write poetry about their perfection. Instead, I guess I'll just keep eating them.

My strawberry bed is a 4x8 foot raised bed. I think we planted it about three years ago. It's always provided us with a steady supply of berries for our breakfast cereal, but when I wanted to make strawberry jam or freeze berries for the winter, we went to the u-pick farm nearby.

This year it's different. I pick strawberries twice a day and I half fill a gallon bucket with beautiful, perfect berries. What's the difference between this year and last year? Honeybees and sunshine. My two top bar hives of bees have been very busy and there is no doubt in my mind that this is making a huge difference. But I can't forget that we had three huge spruce trees removed in March, and the whole farm receives more sunlight.

If you garden, I urge you to consider backyard bees. It's a moderate investment for a wonderful return, and just having them in the farm lends an aura of peacefulness. I don't want to get all preachy about this, but it's our job to make sure the bees survive. And the strawberries appreciate it, too.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Custom Soil Mix

Last week I potted up my veggie seedlings. The peppers, lemon cuke, eggplant, cantaloupe and basil went into large glazed containers. They'll live in the greenhouse for the summer, where I hope the extra heat will boost crops. Using so many containers requires quite a bit of potting soil, and the quality of the soil is especially important for container plants.

I learned from the bonsai community years ago that mixing your own potting soil is cost effective and far more convenient than purchasing heavy bags of the right blend. The bonsai experts in my area recommend equal parts peat moss, Turface and chicken grit. Now that I'm focusing on vegetables, fruits and herbs, my soil mix has evolved to include plenty of sifted compost, rich in nitrogen from chicken manure.

Turface is a soil amendment that keeps soil loose and aerated. It stores and releases moisture and nutrients and helps produce a deep root structure. Red chicken grit is made from granite and helps promote good drainage. (White chicken grit is made of oyster shells and increases calcium in the chicken's diet.)

I blend my soil mixes in a wheelbarrow. It's easy to adjust the blend for the needs of various plants. For example, too much nitrogen in the pepper containers will grow lush leaves and little fruit, so I cut back on the compost. On the other hand, cantaloupe plants love the compost, so I gave it to them straight. I keep plastic tubs of Turface, chicken grit and peat moss in my potting area. Our compost gets sifted out back and wheeled up the hill as needed.

There is no need to purchase bags of special potting soil from the garden center. Just mix your own!

Monday, June 6, 2011

My Bees are Bearding

Honey bees are such fascinating creatures. This week we're learning that when it's too hot for the bees inside the hive, they do what any reasonable creature would do----they step outside on the porch for some fresh air.

This phenomenon is called bearding. The bees form chains and hang off the bottom of the hive, gently swaying in the breeze.

After a long and unseasonably cold spring, we've now vaulted into hot and humid weather. Daytime temperatures have been between 85 and 95 degrees. Since the bees prefer their hive to be a steady 90 degrees, they've been seeking cooler air outside the hive.

When we decided where to situate the hives, we chose a nice sunny place. We also painted the rooftops of the hives in black to absorb as much heat as possible. Clearly we were worried about winter survival. Now I'm worried about comb melting inside the hive. I've covered the hive roofs with white cotton fabric to attempt to reflect a bit of the excess heat. We've also added ventilation holes at both ends of the gabled roofs.

So far I don't think the hives have been harmed by the heat. Bee activity is very busy and the view inside the observation windows continues to look healthy. I'm enjoying watching the bees and their daily rhythms.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Reel Mowers

When we lived in our cozy house on a small property, mowing the lawn with an old fashioned reel mower was a no-brainer. But when we moved to our current lot, a quarter acre seemed like an awful lot of grass to mow.

We've never even wanted a gas-powered mower, nor have we ever wanted a snow-blower, weed whacker or leaf blower. I read that those small gas powered engines create more air pollution than our automobiles. Besides, we hate the noise.

So we purchased a Black & Decker electric mower for our larger lawn. It worked great for two years and was not repairable, so we returned to our old reel mower. I'll admit this has been difficult, but we are stubborn and refused to give in to gas dependent tools.

This spring we got a new reel mower made by Fiskars. It was $230 at the local hardware store and my mowing crew seems to like it. It's easier to push, cuts evenly, and trims cleanly. The mower has four settings to determine grass length, and we're keeping the grass longer to help discourage weeds.

We recommend reel mowing!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Banished Hen Update #2

In March I wrote a blog called "Happy Chickens Lay More Eggs" in which I described our mid-winter chicken drama. Delphinium the Dominique, pictured above, was bullying Hyacinth the Easter Egger. We feared that Delphinium would kill Hyacinth, so we found Delphinium a new home in the country on Kim's hobby farm.

In early April I wrote the first "Banished Hen Update" describing Delphinium's adjustment to life on the hobby farm. She had just been joined by a dozen four-month old pullets. We were waiting to see how she was enjoying life with new sisters.

Never fear. Delphinium is still queen of the flock. Her twelve new sisters are taking marching orders quite nicely. Recently, Delphinium has decided to move to the farm across the highway and she's taken some of her friends with her. Delphinium's leadership qualities are increasingly evident as the neighboring farm has a flock of 100 chickens.

Kim has escorted Delphinium and her sisters home again, only to find that Delphinium marches right back to the large flock. Even the neighboring farmer has declared, "That's one bossy chicken!"