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, February 28, 2012

Growing Mushrooms

A few years ago, we learned that it is possible to cultivate mushrooms. Not those icky ones that sprout in the lawn when it rains too much, but nice edible mushrooms to prepare for dinner. Mushroom distributors sell wooden plugs that have been inoculated with mushroom spores. The instructions direct you to drill small, regularly spaced holes into hardwood logs, insert the plugs, stack the log pile, water and wait. The results can be fairly long-lasting and evidently quite delicious.

Perhaps someday we'll get around to that project, but in the meantime we cheated and purchased a tabletop Shiitake mushroom farm. When it arrived, it looked like a really bad meatloaf. We placed it in a tray, misted with water, and covered it with a plastic tent. Shiitake mushrooms grow in sunlight, so we put it on the plant cart in good light. It began sprouting little mushrooms in a few days, and in less than a week we were harvesting mushrooms for dinner. This wasn't an expensive project, and it appears we'll be harvesting mushrooms for a few weeks. Then we'll let the meatloaf block dry out for a while, re-hydrate and start again. It should be good for three or four flushes.

Homegrown mushrooms taste fabulous! They are far more tender and white than the fresh Shiitake mushrooms available at the grocery store. Shiitake mushrooms are low in calories and high in protein, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, iron and vitamin D2. This is a fun project for late winter when there is nothing else to harvest. We recommend it!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Seedling Soil Mixture

We're off to a good start. So far this year we've planned the gardens (Jan. 26 blog), researched seed purchases (Jan. 27 blog), warmed up our seedling heat mat (Feb. 1 blog) and assembled our lighted plant stands (Feb. 14 blog).

Today let's think about creating a soil mixture suitable for planting seeds. It's much cheaper to make your own soil mixture rather than buy bags prepared at the garden center. At Red Bucket Farm, our approach is simple. We create a soil light enough for seeds to emerge using compost, peat moss, and perlite or vermiculite.

If you haven't started composting yet, you can purchase finished compost at any garden store. But remember that you can begin composting in the winter by mixing a combination of green and brown ingredients in a plastic tub in your basement or garage. (See my May 6, 2011 blog post for more details on composting.)

For many years I've purchased peat moss from the garden center. Recently, though, I've become concerned about depleting our peat bogs. Coir--coconut husk fiber and peat--is a more readily renewable option. It's sold in dense blocks and requires simple hydration. Perlite and vermiculite are also available at garden centers.

Using a hand scoop, dump approximately equal amounts of compost, peat/coir and vermiculite/perlite into a bucket and stir, keeping the mixture light and loose. Distribute seeds over the soil mixture and stir very gently to just barely cover the seeds with soil. Then mist with water from a spray bottle, and/or water from beneath using a drip tray. It's important to keep the seeds moist enough to germinate but not soggy enough to rot. I check my seeds twice a day to maintain proper moisture levels. It's not difficult, but you must be attentive.

The snow is melting and spring is approaching. It's not too late to start your seeds indoors---vegetables, herbs and flowers all benefit from an early start. What are you planting?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lighted Plant Stands

'Tis the season, folks. It's time to get those seedlings started. I could remind you of how much money you'll save by starting your own plants by seed, and how many more varieties are available by seed than the little transplants at your garden center in the spring. But you already know all that. The biggest challenge to starting seeds indoors is getting the growing conditions right. It's all about light, temperature, soil and nutrition.

Today let's think about lighting. Perhaps your house has a lovely south-facing window with tons of good light. Lucky you! Most of us will need to use some form of artificial light, generally florescent bulbs situated within a few inches of the seedlings for 14-18 hours each day.

I'm lucky to own a commercially made lighted plant stand. I bought it years ago for my tropical bonsai trees to live on during the winter months. The cart was a little pricey, but it's positively plebeian compared with the latest gear designed for indoor gardening---metal halide or high pressure sodium lamps, reflectors, fans, pumps, and more fancy stuff than you can shake a stick at. By contrast, at Red Bucket Farm we excel in low-tech solutions.

My commercial plant cart is pictured above. It has three removable trays in fixed positions, each with a florescent light fixture above. The fixtures move up and down so I can snug them up close to my seedlings. We've retrofitted the cart with reflective insulation wrap around the side and back. We've also added some plastic poultry netting on the side to keep the cats out. The front is usually covered with 6-mil clear plastic to hold in humidity and keep out the critters. Sometimes I use a little fan to encourage air circulation. Yellow stickies help keep the gnat population under control, and the heated seedling mat is concealed beneath the new starts.

This photo shows our improvised overflow plant stand. The tropical bonsai trees will have to tolerate their new home for a couple of months until the seedlings move outside to the greenhouse. This stand is made from a cheap plastic 4-shelf unit purchased at the home supply store. We bought this for the greenhouse, and use it as two 2-shelf units which fit beneath the knee walls of the greenhouse. Indoors, it has become a lighted stand with the addition of some pvc pipe, a few elbows and T-joints, and a shop light fixture. We didn't glue the joints so it will be easy to disassemble and store. This kind of flexibility is an advantage as the seedlings grow and move outdoors. In a few months, all the plants will be outside and both lighted carts will be cleaned and disassembled. If you haven't the space for a plant stand, you could make a tabletop fixture just large enough to elevate one shop lamp over your seedlings.

However you choose to illuminate your seedlings, the time to start is soon. Good luck!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Poopy Chicken Butt

Urban farming is deeply gratifying, but it's not always pleasant. Case in point---Crocus, pictured above, has a bad case of poopy butt.  Warning: If you gag when thinking about messy diapers, skip this blog.

Crocus is one of my hybrid "Easter Egger" chickens. She was hatched late March 2011, and began laying eggs in the fall. She's been a good egg layer throughout the winter without added light or heat. She's also rather social, and she has beautiful colored plumage.

Unfortunately, Crocus's chronically messy back end has recently become a problem. A week ago I noticed dried poop about the size of a walnut firmly stuck to her butt feathers. One morning, she presented her fanny end to me as I was cleaning out the hen house. She almost seemed to be asking for help. I checked to make sure her vent is open, and it is, which means she can defecate normally. But that wad of ick is making her uncomfortable enough that she has stopped laying her beautiful green eggs. I've tried picking that stuff off, but I'm afraid I'll hurt her or cause her to bleed, which is bad news in a flock of hen peckers.

We suspect that Crocus's problem is related to her sleep habit. Chickens instinctively roost on a perch at night. In the wild, this gives them some measure of safety from ground predators. In the hen house, it means their poop drops to the floor below them. My first flock of chickens didn't need any help learning to roost, but this group of girls has been happy to sleep on the floor. And Crocus prefers to sleep in the nest boxes, where her poop evidently sticks to her rear feathers all night. By morning, that stuff is like concrete.

Normally, I would soak her feathered fanny in some warm water to loosen the crud and clean her up, but it doesn't seem like such a great idea in sub freezing temperatures. I'll keep picking away gently and hope to provide her some relief. It's not likely that she'll learn to roost at night so the problem may continue. Bird brain. What's a farmer to do?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Seedling Heat Mat

On December 21, I planted basil and parsley seeds in an attempt to keep myself cheerful during the darkest part of the year. Basil is a heat-loving plant and parsley is notoriously slow to germinate, so the whole project would have been ill-fated had it not been for one wonderful new bit of technology---the heated seedling mat.

Costing around $35, my seedling heat mat is large enough for one flat. It's made of heavy gauge vinyl and is designed to hold soil temperature about ten degrees above room temperature. My seeds germinated quickly and the little plants are off to a great start. Yesterday I moved the basil and parsley plants off the warm seedling mat to allow for a new project---I've just started lavender (medicinal for my bees) and chives. Later, I'll use the mat for peppers and eggplant. 

Not all seeds require such warm feet. Last year my tomatoes and Brussels sprouts did just fine without heat. I plan to start onions, carrots and beets soon without the benefit of the seedling mat. But I can see that this is an excellent tool to help get an early start on spring. Many thanks to my friends Lynn and Charlie for introducing us to this!