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!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Blizzard & Bees

A few days ago, Mother Nature delivered a significant blizzard---around 18 inches of snow and high winds. Since then, temperatures have remained below freezing and there has been very little melting. The day after the blizzard, I cleared the snow off the beehives and repaired the plastic wrap we use as wind break. Although the snow functions as insulation, I prefer to clear the roof of the hive so that the black tar paper wrap will help absorb as much heat from the sun as possible.

Yesterday I noticed a few dead bees laying on top of the snow immediately outside the hive entrances. I think this is a good sign that the housekeeping bees are cleaning house. I hope the hives are functioning normally in there!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Carrots--Storage & Menu

In September and early October, I harvested a ridiculous amount of carrots---around 55 pounds. These aren't picture-perfect long slender carrots. Most of them are gnarly and twisted, which is clearly my fault for not having thinned out the seedlings properly. In fact, I intentionally planted them in bunches based on a gardening tip that I had read. Since I'm not selling produce, it doesn't matter to me what shape the carrots take. These carrots are delicious and sweet.

We've experimented with long term storage of the carrots. Our best method so far is simple. We store them in zip-lock bags inside the refrigerator. Our extra fridge is kept warmer than our primary fridge, mostly for storing root vegetables and home brewed beer and cider. It's important to prevent the carrots from dehydrating without simultaneously molding the squash and onions. Hence, we use zip-lock bags.

We've gotten creative with carrots recipes: carrot cake, braised and glazed carrots, mashed carrots with garlicky yogurt. We add carrots to soups, omelets, and stir fries. Yesterday I made sweet carrot pie, which is similar to pumpkin pie. I should probably look for that carrot jam recipe, too.  I think it's important to remember that slightly deformed vegetables taste perfectly fine and don't need to be recycled to the compost pile.

Friday, November 30, 2012

I think I can

Do you remember the classic children's book called The Little Engine That Could? It was a story about a Little Blue Engine who was determined to pull a train of toys and food over the mountain to help children on the other side. And her mantra was "I think I can, I think I can....."

My two pullets, Thelma and Louise, have adopted this as their new mantra. Every day, Thelma and Louise climb into two adjacent nest boxes, where they sit and try very hard to accomplish something wonderful. The older hens stand nearby, cooing encouragement in soft voices. So far there are no results, but these girls are nearly mature and ready to lay. I believe in a short time, they will have something fabulous to announce to all the neighbors.

I think I can, I think I can.....

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hoop House

Gardening in hoop houses is an affordable way to extend the growing season. It's the end of November and I'm still bringing in fresh bunching onions (scallions) and Swiss chard. This has been such a successful addition to my urban farm. With a little creativity, anybody can build one. I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Chickens Mid-molt

Several people have inquired, so here is a quick update on my molting hens. The girls are doing okay, or at least they're not completely miserable. It is normal for them to molt at this time of year. It doesn't make much sense to me, as the nights are quite cold and I wish they were all fully feathered, but this is considered normal. Egg production began tapering off quickly in October. I haven't retrieved an egg since November 3. The same three hens that formerly gave 15-20 eggs per week are now on hiatus while their feathers grow in. It takes all their energy to accomplish this. In the photo above, you can see tiny quills poking through Crocus's head and neck. They resemble white needles against her darker feathers.

Daisy's tail feathers are growing in now and I think she is approaching the end of her molt. Each hen begins and ends the molt at her own pace. Squill, who preferred to not be photographed today, still has bare skin patches on her neck and shoulders.

Meanwhile, we've winterized the coop by covering it with sheet plastic and plexiglass. The girls have plenty of space to stay out of the wind and precipitation, yet they have the freedom to wander outside when it's sunny and warm. They have open water in their heated water dish, and we've increased their protein intake with sunflower seeds as treats.

We're hoping for eggs again after the holidays. Meanwhile, we try to keep the girls clean, dry and well-fed. This is Mother Nature's way of giving the hens a vacation from many months of hard work. And this year I gave them holiday lights on their fence to keep them cheerful.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Winterizing Beehives

A few weeks ago we began winterizing our beehives. We started by wrapping the bee yard with heavy plastic. The arbor-like structure around the bee yard is multi-purpose. In the summer we hang awnings to provide shade for the hives; in the winter we wrap the lower sections to provide a wind break.

Next, we wrap each top bar hive individually. We make an insulation blanket out of large plastic bags filled with 4" fiberglass insulation. We wrap the blankets carefully around the hive box and cover it with tar paper. It's cinched down with nylon web straps. We also secure the box to the ground with more nylon straps and hurricane anchors. It seems excessive in the calm of November, but we might be glad for it during a January blizzard.

Each of our top bar hives has six entrance holes on the small east-facing end of the hive. As the weather gets cooler and the bees less active, it's a good idea to close up some of the entrances to reduce cold air flow.

Evidently, the bees in my blue hive thought I was too slow in closing up entrances. They decided to solve this problem themselves by filling in all three top entrance holes with propolis, their own special bee glue.

The three lower entrance holes on that hive are partially closed. They left a little room to exit and enter. I guess I won't mess with their system since they seem to have it worked out. I'll be curious to see if they open all six holes in the spring. And if they don't, should I do anything about it?

We're optimistic about our hives this winter. In spite of various summer challenges, all three hives seem to have plenty of honey stored and they appear healthy and strong. Now we wait out the winter and hope for the best.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Talkin' Turkey

Years ago, my mother-in-law would roast wild game for Thanksgiving dinner. Each year was a little different---wild goose, turkey, or pheasant---depending on what my father-in-law had successfully hunted that fall. I suspect this is how our forbears celebrated Thanksgiving, serving whatever had been harvested.

Each year, millions of turkeys are raised in industrial conditions for consumption at the holidays. The birds have been bred for extra large breasts, so large that they may not even be able to stand up. They are grown quickly in very crowded conditions, and fed genetically modified corn and soy products. Not surprisingly, they don't taste anything like wild game or pasture raised birds.

Last year we decided to support a local turkey farmer. We placed an order for a pastured raised heritage breed turkey, and I drove 20 miles to the small market to pick up the bird. I seem to recall that it cost five or six dollars a pound, so even a small turkey was a hefty $50. The flavor was pretty fabulous.

This year we're hosting a larger crowd and we simply can't afford to purchase a heritage breed turkey large enough for the family. But I also couldn't bring myself to buy an industrial bird. We found a compromise at the local grocery store---a frozen turkey grown by an organic farm cooperative. It's not quite as local as last year's bird, but at $3.99 a pound, I can afford it and still support a farmer in my state.

Before you buy a Thanksgiving turkey, I urge you to ponder all your options. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Naked Chickens

I'm trying to remain optimistic. Every day I wander out to the chicken coop and check the nest boxes for eggs, but it's to no avail. My flock is betwixt and between. The pullets haven't started laying yet, and the experienced hens are molting.

It's almost painful to watch. Feathers drop out in large clumps. Daisy the Delaware is half naked, her pink skin obviously chilled in the cool fall weather. She has no tail feathers left and there are large bare patches on her sides.

As pin feathers begin grow in, Daisy limps around the chicken yard without any energy, clearly stressed by the process. We've been supplementing with sunflower seeds for extra protein, and we make sure the girls are clean, dry and protected from wind and rain. And we wait. Poor things.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Soggy Chickens

Some chickens are smart enough to take shelter during the rain....and some aren't. We've had more than three inches of rain in the last 36 hours. Daisy and Squill seem to enjoy the reprieve from the drought. 

Daisy is soaked from head to tail. 

Squill's back is drenched and her tail feathers are dripping. 

Silly girls!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Extending the Season

Last night's hard frost finally brought an end to tomato season. We've had a satisfying crop of tomatoes this year, and we've also brought in many pounds of potatoes, squash, carrots and onions. Our canning shelves, freezer and root cellar are full. In spite of the drought, this has been a rewarding growing season and we've learned so much.

Cool fall temperatures don't necessarily signal the end of the season. Extending the growing season to Thanksgiving is possible even in Zone 5 Wisconsin. Our cheap little greenhouse continues to produce "eggplant poppers" and snack-sized green peppers. Although it's 42 degrees outside, the greenhouse can easily reach 80 when the sun is shining. As shown in the photo above, the eggplant are currently blooming.

We've hooped two of our raised beds for fall crops--spinach, Swiss chard, beets and small purple onions. The hoops are made from half inch PVC pipe and secured to the sides of the raised bed with PVC conduit u-rings. The hoops are covered with sheet plastic from the hardware store. We secured the plastic to 1x2 lumber on the long sides of the raised beds. The short ends are simply rolled up and tucked under some bricks. On warm days, I remove the plastic and let the air circulate.

Although it's nice to enjoy the fruits of our labor, the growing season isn't over yet!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Culling the Flock

As an urban farmer, the size of my chicken flock is regulated by city ordinance. Most cities with chicken ordinances permit three or four hens per yard, although I'm hoping that number will increase as neighbors understand the benefit of chickens and realize that birds are much quieter than many dogs. But I digress...

Most backyard chicken enthusiasts raise hens for egg production, although some folks keep them just for fun. Here at Red Bucket Farm, our girls are a hard-working component, providing healthy eggs for the kitchen and plenty of waste for composting. Because of flock size restrictions, we're not able to retain the birds who don't produce.

The recent addition of Thelma and Louise, our new Delaware-Buckeye hybrid pullets, forced us to cull the flock. Culling is the process of removing sick, injured or inferior birds. Rhoda, our Rhode Island Red, has been largely unproductive for many months. In addition, Rhoda is mean. She's been a bully for as long as I can remember.

It's difficult to think about where our meat comes from. As a culture, Americans have become so removed from the source of our food that many of us barely recognize that an animal died in order for us to consume meat. I think that anybody who chooses to eat meat should know the source of their dinner---how the animal lived and how it died. We can't assume that a meat animal's life is handled humanely.

Even egg-laying chickens struggle for a decent life. A commercial egg farm in southern Wisconsin routinely gasses thousands of birds after about a year of egg-laying and disposes of the carcasses in a nearby landfill. In cultures where people live closer to the land and their food sources, it is important to honor an animal's life by using all of it's parts in death.

Rhoda died quickly and without distress. We'll enjoy coq au vin tonight and cook down the remains for soup. She lived a good life right to the end.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

New Pullets

Welcome, Thelma and Louise! These two girls are a Delaware-Buckeye hybrid, recently acquired from an area farmer. I love their bright yellow legs! They have rather small combs ("pea comb") that may develop a bit more as they reach maturity. Their tails are still a little stumpy but are likely to fill out. Since the girls are only about three months old, we'll wait a little bit before they begin to lay eggs.

The Delaware breed is designated as a heritage breed. The birds are white, winter hardy and lay large brown eggs. The Buckeye breed was developed in Ohio from a Rhode Island Red. The Stoughton-area farmer who bred Thelma and Louise is hoping for very hardy birds that lays plenty of rich, brown eggs.

Incorporating pullets into an established flock is a little tricky. The older birds don't exactly roll out the red carpet. Thelma and Louise are keeping a low profile, sometimes perching on elevated roosting spots that the big girls can't quite access. It can be a bit of a circus, and Louise (with the pink leg band above) tends toward the dramatic.

Stay tuned for more updates on the transition in our small flock.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Gnarly Carrots

My carrots won't be winning any prizes at the county fair. They're all gnarly and twisted, and I probably should have harvested them a month or two ago.

I've never successfully grown carrots from seeds. Every year, some little critter eats the tender shoots as they emerge from the ground, and the whole project is lost before it's begun. This year I started carrots in 4" pots indoors sometime in February. As the weather warmed, the little pots of seedlings moved to the greenhouse. Finally the carrots were transplanted in bunches to raised beds, where they were interplanted between the tomatoes as companion plants.

Perhaps I should have thinned the crop to avoid the gnarly mass of carrots that I'm pulling up this week. Truthfully, I don't mind. I'm happy to have carrots for soups and stews. I trim the tops, wash the carrots and store them in the root cellar. So far I've harvested about 15 pounds of gnarly carrots, and there is plenty more in the gardens. All is well.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Harvesting Hops

Our curiosity in growing hops at Red Bucket Farm is new. We began brewing beer in late 2011, which led to an interest in growing hops this summer.

We started brewing by purchasing an equipment kit (ale pail, carboy, siphon, capping device, etc) and an ingredient kit (grains, malt, yeast, hops). By following the directions and paying attention to detail, it's not too difficult to make very drinkable beverages. Brewing beer from kits is similar to making brownies from a boxed mix. It's easy and fun, but eventually you might want to try a recipe of your own. Growing hops made sense to us and seemed like part of the brewing adventure.

Hops are a perennial vine that flower in the late summer. They can grow twenty feet tall in one season and need sturdy structure. Pictured in the photo above are two of our three hops towers just after planting in July. We established three varieties---Cascade, Willamette, and Nugget---each in their own raised bed with a 12 foot tower. As the vines grew, we encouraged the strongest to attach to twine and clipped out the weak vines. Hops grow best in full sunshine.

At the end of the summer, all three of our hops plants produced flowers from which beer gets its aroma, flavor and distinctive bitterness. We carefully cut down the twine supporting the vines and pulled the flowers gently off the vine.

The flowers were dried in a 120 degree oven and then weighed for use. Our resident brew master refrigerated the flowers overnight and cooked up a wort the next day. It's percolating in the basement now.

We're pleasantly surprised that the vines were productive in their first year of growth. The plants will die back to the ground over winter. Next summer should produce a much bigger crop as the vines become more established.

Hops also have antiseptic qualities. I read that they're good for chicken health, so perhaps we'll have enough to share with the flock next summer. Meanwhile, Al the Cat (above) is having a small taste. Cheers!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Food Snobs

It's time for me to recognize that my girls are food snobs. Oh sure, they love the treats we give them---bread, pasta, rice, melon rinds, and those scrumptious smushed Japanese beetles that we pick off the raspberry plants. But just this week they've proven themselves to be as fussy and lazy as spoiled cats. 

When we first began raising chickens, our poultry consultant recommended that we feed them food from a reputable company such as Purina. He discouraged us from buying the bags of cheap feed at the farm store. Like dog and cat food, poultry feed comes in a few different formulas for different stages of life. There's chick feed, of course, followed by different blends for egg layers or for birds raised as meat production. Our first girls started out with Purina chick grower and then moved on to Purina Layena. 

After a while, I became aware of genetically modified crops, and I realized that Purina very likely uses corn that has been genetically modified. We switched to organic hen food, alternating between two brands. We tried Organic Pride (from Mounds) and the Willy Street Coop's own soy-free organic blend. In the end, we decided that Organic Pride had less waste at the bottom of the bin and the girls seemed to prefer it. 

Just in the last month, egg production has been down significantly. Two of my girls have given me an egg or two per week, which is pretty poor. I know they lay fewer eggs in extreme heat, but this month has been pleasant. We decided to change their food to see if that would make any difference. 

Early this week, we scooped the Purina feed into their food dishes and watched them run frantically from one dish to the other. All four hens eyed us wildly, certain there was some kind of horrible mistake. They returned to the hanging food hopper, the only dish with a bit of organic feed remaining. Then they sulked in a corner and refused to eat until their evening ration of Japanese beetles. 

So. That's the way it's going to be? We returned to organic feed and the girls dramatically swooped in to fill their little crops. I'll give the Purina to a neighboring chicken farmer. But the cleaver and soup pot await those who do not lay eggs. Nope, I'm not kidding. We're limited to four hens and they're not simply pets. I hope they're paying attention to my daily pep talks! 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Apiary Update

This is just a quick update on our beehives. In July, we had such an extended heat wave that one of our top bar hives experienced a damaging meltdown. You can read the details of that on my July 22 post. But there is good news---the damaged colony is rebuilding. This week I noticed a new hatch of bees taking their orientation flights in and out of the hive, staying within a few feet of the hive while they get their bearings. (I avoided picking tomatoes in front of that hive while they were doing that!)  They have about eight combs now and the colony is obviously queen-right. We're a little more hopeful that this hive will be able to survive the winter. Aren't they amazing little creatures?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Onion Harvest

A week ago my onion bed looked tired. The leaves had been flopping over for several days and it wasn't due to lack of water. The plants were finished and ready for harvest.

At the end of April, I planted a hundred purchased Copra Hybrid onion plants and forty onion "sets" of generic purple onions given to me by a fellow gardener. Onion sets are tiny little bulbs that were sown the previous year and then stored over winter for spring planting. Onion plants, which look like a bundle of thick grass, were seeded a few months earlier and then gathered for transplanting. Both methods are tried and true, although sets are sometimes more disease prone. I planted my onions in a 12'x3' raised bed in full sunshine where they have grown without much fuss.

Last week, after carefully lifting the onions out of the soil, I gently rubbed them clean and placed them on top of the soil to dry for a week. It's important to cure the onions until the outer skin becomes dried and crispy.

Since it's been a rainy week, I transferred the onions to wire tables in the greenhouse and kept the fan running to dry them. The Copra onions will store well in mesh bags, so we'll use the purple onions first.

This is the first time we've grown onions at Red Bucket Farm. So far, it's been pretty easy and we're looking forward to eating this crop!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Greenhouse Shadecloth

In my life as a Wisconsin gardener, much of my thought process is about how to get bushes, vines, trees, chickens and bees to survive the bitter cold winter. But this year, I'm learning how to get those same bushes, vines, trees, chickens and bees to survive an extraordinarily blistering summer. And although it's been hot outside, it's been even hotter in the greenhouse.

Daytime temperatures in the greenhouse are frequently more than 100 degrees. Inside, we're growing eggplant and peppers in large containers. These two veggies theoretically love the heat, and I thought they would enjoy the protection of the greenhouse. I was surprised to discover that the leaves of the eggplant bushes were bleaching and dropping. Once it dawned on me that it was just too sunny in there, I draped an old sheet over the top of the greenhouse. Within a couple days, the leaves began to turn green again.

We ordered a "shadecloth kit" and installed it inside the greenhouse. It's not perfect, but it certainly makes the greenhouse more tolerable in the heat. The eggplants are recovering and shooting out more blossoms and fruit. I imagine that I'll remove the shade cloth in a few weeks and store it until next year. I've also added a fan to the greenhouse. It's important to keep the air moving, which seems to keep the whiteflies under control.

Whether it's too hot or too cold, we always enjoy eating whatever fresh food we manage to grow.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Apiary Meltdown

We experienced a disaster in the bee yard at Red Bucket Farm. Due to extreme heat in the first week of July (over 100 degrees for three consecutive days), we discovered that all the combs in the red hive had melted off the top bars and dropped to the floor of the hive, crushing hundreds or thousands of bees. This was our newest hive and it had been doing fabulously, building a dozen combs, laying eggs, tending brood, bringing in nectar and pollen.

Last weekend (July 14) we cleaned out the melted mess from the floor of the hive. The combs had not melted off the top bars. In fact, there was still an inch or two of comb attached to each top bar, but the bulk of the comb had dropped in the heat. I remember a day in the extreme heat (when I was preoccupied with trying to keep the chickens alive) that there were suddenly a large number of bees on the outside of that hive. At the time I assumed it was normal bearding behavior in the heat, but in retrospect I believe the returning forager bees clustered outside because of the disaster inside.

We also discovered bees building comb in the roof of that hive. This was new comb without honey or brood, so we suspect they began building there after the meltdown. I have to admire their work ethic and resourcefulness.

After cleaning up the disaster, we shook the bees out of the rooftop and back into the hive body, then replaced all the top bars and let the bees get back to work. We're rebuilding the rooftop to repair the warp and prevent them from accessing the space. We also built an arbor-like structure over the bee yard and sewed awnings to provide some shade from the summer sun. The awnings can be removed in the fall when the sunshine will be beneficial to the hives.

We're concerned that it's rather late in the summer for that hive to rebuild enough that it will be strong for winter survival. This morning we took two top bars from an adjacent healthy hive to share with the struggling colony. The borrowed combs were full of honey, brood and bees. Perhaps this will jump-start the red hive for a chance at survival. If the queen was lost in the disaster, they may be able to groom a new one.  We're also providing supplemental cups of honey.

There is some good news. One of the hives is quite strong. We harvested 20 cups of honey which we can use to feed the weaker hive. Maybe there will even be some honey for us to enjoy. It's been a fascinating journey. There is nothing like an emergency to teach us about bee life.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Heat Exhausted Hens

It's been a brutally hot week here in the upper Midwest, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for days. My four hens have done reasonably well in the heat by scratching wallows in the dirt and staying in the shade.

Last night the heat was unrelenting, still over 90 degrees at 10 pm. We placed a fan outside the hen house, hoping that a little breeze would provide some relief. Squill (the Speckled Sussex) was panting so fast and loudly that she may not have gotten any rest.  

This morning (a mere 80 degrees at 7:30 am) Squill was showing distress. She was panting loud and fast, stopping only to open her beak wide and gulp for air. By 10 am I couldn't risk it anymore. I brought the girls inside and settled them on the cool tile floor of the basement bathroom. They have food, water, and a couple of garden trugs with hay. They're resting quietly in relative darkness. Let's hope the poor things survive the summer.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Herding Dog

Lately, I've been trying to blog with information that might prove useful to other urban farmers, but today's blog is strictly a stupid pet story.

Most evenings about an hour before dark, we head out to the backyard in the hope of getting a little work accomplished after the heat of the day. While we're tending the gardens, we let the hens out of the chicken yard to wander around, pecking grubs and bugs from the ground. Our dog, Beta, has learned to follow the chickens without harassing them too much. She seems to enjoy the hens and our evening family time.

Beta is half German Shepherd. She came to us several years ago from a shelter organization. She had clearly been abused in her life before us. She was afraid of everything, choosing to hide in the safety of her crate most of the day. Over the years, she's become a good family pet, but she overcompensates for her fears by being unnecessarily protective and overly aggressive. Nevertheless, she is kind to the chickens.

The other evening, one of us began to shoo the hens back into their fenced chicken yard. As soon as we began, Beta carefully circled to the far side of the chickens and gently corralled them into their pen. We were amazed, so we let them back out and tried it again. As soon as we began to shoo them, Beta calmly passed beyond the farthest hen and efficiently herded them into their pen. We tried this new routine four times, and each opportunity Beta became more confident and efficient, never ruffling the hens.

Most of us think of German Shepherds as drug-sniffing police dogs, but at some point in their history they must have been sheep herding animals. I guess some of those instincts remain. It's a good pet trick for an unusual farm dog.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Cooling the Hens

In the month of June, we had thirteen days over 90 degrees, which is more than we usually experience in an entire summer. Additionally, we've had less than an inch of rain. Unfortunately, the extended forecast indicates no relief.

So how do we keep the girls cool? It's important to provide shade for chickens. My girls follow the shade around the chicken yard as the sun moves through the day. They scratch a depression in the dirt and cover themselves with dust, wallowing in the coolness of the soil. They have an area behind the coop with a low covered roof so they can always find protection from the sun and predators.

Water is especially important during a heat wave. We provide three open drinking bowls and refill at least twice daily. Daisy the Delaware has discovered that she enjoys standing in the large water bowl. It's comical, but she won't allow photographs. We decided to take the hint, and we placed a garden trug in the chicken yard with an inch or so of water. They seem to enjoy hanging out at the beach, drinking water and wading to cool their ankles. (Really? Chickens have ankles?) 

Our best discovery this summer has been to water the chicken yard. We're not the kind of folks to waste water on grass, but the ground is terribly parched, cracked and hard as concrete. Spraying water over part of the chicken yard gives some relief for the hens, allowing them to scratch and peck for bugs. It may even reduce the air temperature just a tiny bit due to the evaporation.

It's normal for egg production to decrease in extremely hot weather. As long as the girls survive the heat wave, we'll be happy farmers.