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!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Happy Thanksgiving - Blessed Advent - Merry Christmas - Happy New Year from all of us at Red Bucket Farm.

I have discontinued writing this blog because it takes a bit of time and is read by relatively few. So, if you want me to continue posting, please drop me a note and let me know!

Happy Urban Farming!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Who Cooks for You?

In many parts of the world, family units have one person whose full-time job is to prepare food for the family. This person rises early in the morning to make breakfast. After cleaning up, they head to the market to purchase food ingredients for the rest of the day's meals. It's not always a woman who does this work. We knew an exchange student from China who revealed that her retired grandfather did all the kitchen work.

By stark contrast, Americans have made an entire industry out of convenience foods. We've also seen an abrupt increase in obesity, diabetes, cancer, autism, allergies and more. Coincidence?

America's dependence on convenience food goes way beyond an occasional visit to a fast food restaurant. Food celebrities have published dozens of 30-minute meal cookbooks and they all include canned, packaged and pre-cooked items. How many of us make our own stock or boil our own legumes?  How easy is it to make salad dressing or popcorn? Yet even a 30-minute homemade meal is better than a frozen box of chicken pot pie or a can of soup.

So who cooks for you? Kraft? Pillsbury? Annie's Organics? And why does America no longer value the home cook?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


Have you noticed that winters are warmer now than when we were kids? Does it concern you that we dump more salt on the winter roads in spite of warmer temperatures? Do you worry about chemical run-off in our local lakes? 

Do you worry that the Arctic ice caps are melting at an alarming rate? Do you think about polar bears with reducing habitat? Do you marvel at the increasing wildfires? Do you slather your skin with sunscreen in July because the ozone no longer protects you from the sun? 

Do you realize the banana you ate yesterday was shipped thousands of miles for your convenience? Do you consider the global effects of the third cup of coffee you drank this morning? Or the kiwi from New Zealand that is now routinely available and affordable? 

Do you stand in shocked awe when your neighbors heat their homes so warmly that they can wear summer clothes in January? Do you worry that the latest electronic devices are sucking energy? Are you stunned by the folks who routinely commute dozens of miles each day and justify it in their minds by driving a high mileage vehicle? Do you wonder how desert regions feel entitled to grassy green golf courses and the water pipelines to support them? 

Do you worry that our high consumer society is wearing blinders to the environmental damage we are causing? Do you worry that most people have decided they can't make a difference?  

Do you ever consider the poor souls that will walk this planet after we're gone?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Harvest Totals

I haven't posted about our successful harvests because I was afraid it would sound like bragging---and Heaven knows that bragging is one of the seven deadly sins. Nevertheless, I want to tell you about it as inspiration for your own gardens. Remember that Red Bucket Farm is just my backyard in an average 1970s neighborhood with less than a quarter acre property including the house. You can do this, too.

Harvesting began in June with a lovely supply of currants and strawberries. I made the currants into jam and sauce. Some of the strawberries became jam and others were frozen. In July we harvested cherries from three cherry trees. We made a few pies and have several bags of cherries in the freezer.

The summer raspberries produced nicely, too, some of which became jam, some frozen, and plenty of them enjoyed fresh. The blueberry bushes are coming along, and we were able to freeze a few for winter use. Our peach tree did very well---90 pounds of peaches! My freezer and canning shelves are full---jam, peach rum sauce, spiced honey peaches, peaches in light honey syrup, and plain frozen peach slices (for pie later on).

In July we harvested honey from our one surviving hive. We made mead and strawberry melomel (a fruity mead variation). Honey is shelf stable and will last the winter.

Vegetables in raised beds have also done well. I harvested 50 pounds of potatoes and 50 pounds of onions in early August, and immediately replanted those beds with spinach, arugula, Swiss chard and beets. We'll hoop those beds to stretch the growing season through November. The butternut squash have exceeded 60 pounds, and there are still more growing on the vines.

This year the tomatoes have outdone themselves. I grow only six Amish paste tomato plants and I have enough tomato products to keep us until next year----plain tomato sauce, pizza sauce, tomato paste, and two kinds of salsa. I'm not kidding---only six tomato plants and they're still producing. Green beans continue to produce into the fall. We have dilled beans and frozen beans to last the winter.

What have I forgotten? Lots of basil/pesto, herbs, carrots, beets, scallions, and garlic. Fall bearing raspberries are awesome!

You can do it, too. If there is a secret to successful gardening, it's not a very well-kept secret: sunshine and compost. Start planning for next year's garden!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Pullets First Eggs

Some hens begin their egg-laying career with little fanfare, while other hens require extra encouragement. Generally speaking, I do not fuss over my hens a great deal. It's true they have fabulous living quarters and excellent organic, locally-milled food, but I do not hug them, or hold them on my lap, nor do I sing to them, or read them poetry or write poetry about them (although I love the folks who do all those things). My girls are members of the urban farm team, and when their time is up, it's good that I'm not too attached to them emotionally. 

Andromeda (the Barred Rock pictured above) arrived at maturity and began laying a few weeks ago with nothing more than a happy little crow. It's easy to see when a pullet is ready to begin laying eggs. She'll begin hanging around the nest boxes, quietly watching the older girls. Andromeda prefers to be left alone to accomplish her morning ritual, dutifully giving us one medium-sized light brown egg. She minds her own business and rarely calls any attention to herself.

Evidently, not all the girls understand the working rules around here. Cassie (the Easter Egger in the photo above) has been like Velcro for the last couple weeks. She's always underfoot, rubbing against my ankles as if she's a kitten. She crouches down and waits for me to stroke her or pick her up. She jumps into the hen house to help me clean. She talks to me constantly, the happy clucking of a contented bird. Even when I'm picking beans outside the chicken yard, Cassie is right at the gate, chattering away some fantastic story. I knew she was getting ready to lay her first egg, and the blessed moment finally arrived over the weekend. There was a fair amount of squawking and drama, including a few hours in the nest boxes while she worked out the timing.

Until a few years ago, I never imagined that chickens have such unique personalities, every bit as distinct as their lovely eggs. We still have one more pullet to arrive at egg-laying maturity this fall. Since she's already a loud talker, I expect there's more drama to come.....

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Summer vs. Winter Squash

We entertained visitors at Red Bucket Farm over the holiday weekend. One guest asked, "Just how big are you going to let those squash grow?" The implication was that our squash had already grown way beyond their usefulness. I think the confusion is understanding the difference between winter squash and summer squash.

Summer squash are generally yellow skinned vegetables that grow in a variety of shapes---pattypan, crook-neck, straight-neck, and their green skinned cousin zucchini. This family of squash often grows in a bushy habit, and it has soft flesh. If not harvested early and often, the fruits can quickly grow to the size of a football. Jumbo zucchini isn't a crisis, it just requires a little creativity to use its prodigious quantity. (Try them in fritters.) Summer squash doesn't store very well. It's best to eat it promptly, hence it is called summer squash. Sorry that I don't have any photos of summer squash, but we didn't plant any this year.

Winter squash grows on long enthusiastic vines, and in a wide variety of shapes, colors and sizes. Our favorite is butternut squash, which we make into all things savory and sweet. The flesh of winter squash is solid, with a small seed cavity similar to pumpkin. Often the skin can also be quite firm. Winter squash is a longer growing vegetable, harvested in the fall just before the first frost. The little fruits start out green and mature into bright colors in late summer and early fall. Many winter squash will store nicely, adding to the variety on the supper table well into February and March. 

So don't fear large squash. And when you hear the meteorologist warn about first overnight freeze, you'll know I'm outside in the dark harvesting squash by flashlight. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Harvest Time

It's the time of year when fruits and veggies mature as fast (or faster) than we can bring them in and process them. It's a good problem to have, because it means the urban farm is increasingly productive and we'll have plenty of organic food to eat all winter. 

Pole beans are growing like crazy. We pick a bucket of beans every day, blanch and flash freeze.

The tomatoes continue to arrive at an impressive rate. This is a fruit with plenty of options. I've roasted, pureed and frozen some of it, and canned simple tomato sauce. Soon I'll make pizza sauce, barbecue sauce and salsa, canning it for stable shelf storage because my freezer is getting quite full.

Our little peach tree has hit its stride. We've harvested more than sixty pounds of fruit from one tree, virtually without blemish. I've frozen peach slices for future pies; canned peaches in spiced honey syrup; canned more peaches in rum sauce; and canned even more peaches in a simple honey syrup. When I'm too exhausted to care, I just cut them into a freezer container, sprinkle it with a teaspoon of sugar, and put it in the freezer. We're approaching the end of the peach crop. Whew!

So if I seem like I haven't written, called or blogged lately, now you know why!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Enormous Tomatoes

The Amish Paste tomatoes are outdoing themselves this year. In the photo above, the tennis ball is shown for size comparison. These tomatoes are the size of softballs and weigh between 8 and 14 ounces. If I knew the secret to growing huge tomatoes I would share it, but I have no idea what's gotten into these plants.

We have only ten tomato plants---six Amish Paste, two Sungold Hybrid cherry tomatoes, and two Jaune Flamme (a medium-sized heirloom). We find that ten plants gives us the pleasure to eat warm fruit from the vine and still have plenty to preserve for winter use. I haven't purchased commercial tomato products in the last year or two.

This year all the tomato plants are producing very well, but the Amish paste plants are falling over from the weight of the fruit in spite of rigorous staking. I pick the fruit slightly green and give them a day or two on the drying table to fully ripen in the sunshine. Meanwhile, I'd better get ready to roast, can and freeze. This enthusiastic harvest is a good problem!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Drying & Storing Onions


We harvested our Copra onions a week or so ago. This type of onion was hybridized to store well over the course of the winter, often for several months. Conventional gardening wisdom recommends leaving the onions on the surface of the soil to dry, but at Red Bucket Farm it never fails to rain immediately after harvesting. We didn't think that it was smart to cure the onions on a damp garden bed, so we built a drying table. It's a simple wood frame built of 2x4 lumber with 1/4 inch hardware cloth as the floor of the table. This is useful for drying onions, potatoes, squash and hops. When the weather threatens to rain, we hoop the table with old fencing and cover it with a tarp. 

After a week of drying in the sun (and sometimes hiding from rain), we cut off the dried green tops of the onions and store them in boxes in our pantry refrigerator. Growing conditions must have been favorable this year, because we yielded a full fifty pounds of onions. Sometimes gardening can be very frustrating, but I'll admit to feeling pretty satisfied with this harvest. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Hops Harvest

Harvesting hops is my favorite garden "chore." We sit on the patio drinking iced coffee and listening to good music while picking hops off the bine. It's relaxing and smells fabulous!

We grow three kinds of hops here at Red Bucket Farm---Cascade, Willamette and Nugget. Hops bines (not vines) twist around a taut twine on our 12' tall hops towers. This morning our resident brewer climbed the orchard ladder and cut down the twines and bines.

We harvested 12 ounces of Cascade hops and 2 ounces of Willamette. (The Nugget hops aren't quite ready for harvesting.) Although it doesn't seem like very much, the Cascade hops filled one bucket to the brim. It's more than enough for a batch of pale ale, which is in the works as I write this. We'll store a few ounces of the Cascade hops in the fridge for a week to serve as the "finishing" hops for the India pale ale. Any remaining hops will be dried and frozen for future use.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ruby's First Eggs

Ruby has just begun laying her first eggs! She is a hybrid known sometimes as Red Star, Comet, or Golden Buff. The females are veritable egg machines, laying well in hot and cold weather. Our former Red Star was Rosie, who laid more than 600 eggs. That's quite an act to follow, but Ruby has begun laying at 16 weeks of age, precisely the same age that Rosie was when she began laying. So far, Ruby's eggs are undersized---slightly smaller than a golf ball---but we expect they will soon be larger.

It's comical to watch the spring chicks arrive at maturity. Last week the young pullets were all in the hen house watching one of the older hens lay an egg in the nest box. They were quiet and respectful. I wondered if there was some kind of tutorial experience happening in there.

Ruby's eggs are a welcome addition to the kitchen. We harvested our older hens a few weeks ago and egg production has been down. The other spring chicks will begin laying in the next few weeks.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Underplanting the Orchard

In his book The Holistic Orchard, fruit tree expert Michael Phillips offers recommendations for the overall health and productivity of fruit trees. Based on his concepts, we spent several hours over the weekend underplanting our home orchard. We removed the grass beneath each tree and added hardwood mulch to allow more nutrients and water to reach the roots of the trees. 

Phillips recommends planting a "living mulch," an understory of widely diversified plants, some that attract beneficial insects, others than repel destructive insects. We have plenty to learn in this area, but diversity seems to be the operative concept. 

Comfrey (above), known for its medicinal qualities, has a long tap root that pulls up nutrients from deep below ground and distributes them to tree roots. We planted oregano and lemon balm for their bee-friendly qualities. Chives are reported to help with peach leaf curl, so we planted that beneath the peach trees. Bitter herbs are thought to repel fruit pests, so we'll work on that next spring. 

Of all the crazy projects we've done around here, this one has garnered most comments from the neighbors because in addition to having function, underplanting is also quite attractive. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Onion Harvest

In April I planted two different varieties of onion: Copra hybrid for long term storage through the winter, and Candy hybrid for sweet eating. The onions have grown well this year, presumably due to so much rain in June and plenty of heat in July.

Last week the Candy hybrid onions began flopping their leaves dramatically, indicating they are mature and ready to harvest. This week they became uniformly droopy, although it seems rather early in the summer to harvest. Nevertheless, I decided to get them out of the ground this week so they won't rot in the ground next week while I am away from the farm.

The Candy hybrid onions are now drying and curing on open shelves inside the greenhouse. After curing, they'll store in a cool place for several weeks. The Copra hybrid, which is most of my crop, is still in the ground. I'll harvest the Copras in a couple of weeks, and then replant that raised bed with spinach, arugula and Swiss chard.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Canning vs. Freezing

It rained a record-setting eleven inches in the month of June at Red Bucket Farm, which seems to have pleased our fruit bearing plants, bushes and trees. In the last few weeks, we've harvested many pounds of strawberries, rhubarb, currants and cherries. The raspberries, blueberries and tomatoes are just beginning to ripen, which will be followed by peaches and more vegetables.

What do we do with all the harvest? Our free-standing freezer is modest in size, so we follow the advice of our friend Lynn who says, "Can what you can and freeze what you can't." So far we have canned strawberry jam, apricot jam, rhubarb-currant jam, and currant sauce (for pancakes, ice cream, etc).  We've frozen sour pie cherries, sliced strawberries and strawberry puree (for smoothies).

It concerns me that home canning has a reputation of being difficult and arduous. The whole process is rather simple. The main concept is to pour piping hot food into boiling hot jars, tighten the lids and simmer them for a few minutes. As they cool, the lid seals with a pop. That's it. The equipment is affordable and readily available---a few canning jars and lids, a large soup pot for cooking the food, one large canning pot for boiling the jars. A few tools are helpful, like a canning funnel, a jar lifter, a ladle. Keep it simple.

Let's take today as an example. I picked black currants this morning, separated them from their tiny vines and stems, and washed them. (Then I took a break.) After that I placed clean jelly jars inside the canning pot, filled it with water and started it on my high capacity burner. The currants went into the soup pot along with some sugar, while the new canning lids went into a sauce pan with water to simmer. My goal was to have the currants cooked down at about the same time the jars came to a boil. I lifted each jar out of the boiling water bath one at a time, filled with jam using the funnel and ladle, wiped the rim clean of any drips, added the lid and the canning jar ring, and lowered it back into the boiling water bath. When all the jam was in the jars, I cranked the heat back up to high and boiled for ten minutes. Then I turned off the heat, raised the lid and waited five more minutes. I lifted the jars out of the water bath onto a towel and listened to the lids pop as they sealed.

The process may seem complicated at first, but soon it becomes easy. I can make a batch of jam in a hour. It's the picking and cleaning the fruit that takes a long time. Visit www.freshpreserving.com for more details, or check out a canning book from the library. Try to avoid the high drama of 1950s home economics tutorials. This isn't rocket science. Just follow any recipe for guidance as to how much sugar to add, and whether or not you'll need lemon juice for acidity or pectin for thickening. The instruction sheet inside a box of powdered pectin is probably sufficient to get anyone making jam.

Freezing is even more simple than canning. Place clean fruit (such as cherries, raspberries, blueberries) in a single layer on a cookie sheet and pop it in the freezer. After a few hours, transfer the fruit to freezer bags or containers. Sliced strawberries and peaches can be placed directly into the freezer container. Make sure containers are tightly shut to avoid freezer burn. It is possible to use glass canning jars in the freezer (rather than plastic), but be sure to leave an extra inch of expansion space at the top of the jar.

Now, get out there and enjoy the fruit of the season!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Thinning the Peach Crop

Last year our mature peach tree produced a minimal crop due to unfavorable weather conditions. Summer arrived in March forcing a premature bloom. Winter returned in April and froze many of the blossoms. The rest of the summer was plagued with drought. We were pleased that our fruit trees survived such a tumultuous growing season.

This year is quite the opposite. The temperatures have been seasonally appropriate and our fruit trees bloomed beautifully in April. Pollination must have been adequate because the peach tree is loaded with an abundance of walnut-sized fruits. There are so many little peaches forming on the tree that we expect branches will break under the weight of the fruit or the whole tree will simply keel over.

Experts advise thinning the crop. Heavy fruit like peaches should grow no closer than every four inches, about the width of an adult hand. Thin branches can't hold more than one peach. At harvest time, it will be far more satisfying to bring in a bushel of 100 large peaches rather than a bushel of 500 tiny peaches. It's important to be realistic about how much fruit one tree can produce.

So we thinned the crop. Using our awesome orchard ladder, we removed hundreds of tiny green peaches. It seems like a shame, but in another month or so I think we'll be glad we did it.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Orchard Ladder

This spring we invested in an orchard ladder. It was a safety measure---too often I have watched my husband teetering a the top of an eight foot step ladder with bricks or 2x4 lumber tucked precariously beneath one or two ladder legs in an effort to balance the thing. These were situations in which I would dial 9-1- and wait for disaster. Fortunately it never occurred, but when we discovered orchard ladders, this purchase quickly became a priority.

An orchard ladder is a tripod. The ladder side is wide at the bottom and narrows gradually to the top. The third leg hinges widely---perfect for working on a slope or hillside, and ideal for getting right into the middle of fruit trees without causing branch or fruit damage. (This week we're picking sour pie cherries and thinning peaches.) The ladder is also useful for managing our 12 foot tall hops towers. Working at the top of this ladder feels stable and safe.

Purchasing an orchard ladder takes a little determination. They are not readily available at hardware stores or  farm retailers. Our new 12 foot aluminum orchard ladder is made by Tallman. The local Tallman distributor operates a cherry orchard about 30 miles away and sells a few extra ladders out of his barn.

As our fruit trees continue to grow, we look forward to many years with our orchard ladder.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Chick Update

The spring chicks at Red Bucket Farm are growing quickly. They hatched April 8 and arrived here on the farm April 10. Their earliest weeks were spent entirely beneath the heat lamp in the brooder box. By the end of April, the chicks spent their daytime hours outside in the day pen.

You can see in the photos that the chicks are don't look much like babies anymore. They have fuller bodies and complete tail feathers. Their combs are starting to become more obvious but their voices are still little peeps. Vocal sounds, combs and wattles are the last obvious things to fully mature before they begin laying eggs, around four to six months of age.

Earlier this month the chicks moved into the main chicken yard during the daytime. They are separated from the biddies by a wire fence, which allows them time to grow accustomed to each other. In another month, the chicks should arrive at their adult size and we'll blend the two flocks into one. Meanwhile, the little ones still spend night time in the brooder box in the garage to keep them safe from predators. It's a bit of a circus to transfer them each morning and evening, but that's part of the fun.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Irregular Eggs

I went out to gather eggs this noon and look what I found! The green egg is from Crocus the Easter Egger; the tan egg is from Squill the Speckled Sussex; and the large brown egg is from Thelma the Delaware-Buckeye hybrid. But who in the world laid the tiny egg? It's about the size of a walnut. I might think it came from a bantam hen, except that I don't have bantams. The dark brown shell is the same as Thelma's eggs. Can she have laid an egg-and-a-half today? Is that even possible? She's been working hard lately, clearly making up for my older hens who lay only twice a week. Strange....

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Greenhouse Transition

Our little greenhouse is a hard-working element at Red Bucket Farm. In March we began raising seedlings inside the greenhouse. We started with hardy herbs (rosemary, chives, lavender) and cool season veggies like peas, carrots, beets, and Brussels sprouts. In mid-April we added warm-weather veggies including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and basil. The shelving units were loaded with containers and flats of seedling pots. We used a water thermal inside to moderate cold night temperatures as well as a fan to keep the air circulating.

This week we transitioned the greenhouse from spring nursery to summer growth. I removed the water thermal and three of the four shelving units. We hung shade cloth over the southern exposure to limit the sunshine, which gets overpowering in the summer. One shelving unit remains for ongoing seedling projects.

I potted the eggplant and peppers into their summer containers and gave them each a tomato cage for support. Although the space appears relatively empty now, it will soon be crowded with foliage and veggies. A tall tower-style fan remains in one corner of the greenhouse all year.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Coop Tour Fun

On Saturday, we volunteered as one of a dozen host sites for the Mad City Chicken Coop Tour. Visitors began arriving just after 9 am and continued in a steady stream all morning. Although the tour was scheduled to end at 1 pm, we chatted with guests until 2:00.

We met so many wonderful chicken enthusiasts, all of them curious and ready to learn. We shared our chicken-keeping philosophy---why we chose a walk-in style coop and elevated hen house, and the importance of hardware cloth over chicken wire. We talked about chicken breeds, egg color, heated water dishes, supplemental lighting, insulation, ventilation, winter protection, hawks and owls and coyotes. Oh, my! Many of our guests also asked about our top bar beehives, raised garden beds, hops towers, hillside terraces, home orchard and greenhouse.

In return, visitors were happy to share their own expertise with us. We learned that lemon balm is just as invasive as mint. One person shared a recipe for making skin balm from beeswax, almond oil and essential oil. Another new friend offered to share a bit of SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) or "mother culture" for making kombucha.

We estimate that our visitors numbered between 60 and 70. A few guests came from the neighborhood, others from across Madison, Middleton, McFarland, Stoughton, Columbus, Walworth County, Milwaukee and even northern Illinois. Several folks expressed frustration at their restrictive local ordinances.

The only problem with volunteering as a host is that we didn't get to visit other coops. We managed a quick after-hours peek at one other host site where we discovered a wonderful and creative adaptive reuse of a child's play house.

It was a fabulous (and exhausting) day. The weather was beautiful, the chickens showed well, and the people were supportive and fun. If you haven't experienced a coop tour, give it a try!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Coop Tour

Mad City Chickens presents their annual Backyard Coop Tour on Saturday June 1, 2013 from 9 am to 1 pm. It's a casual opportunity for interested folks to take a peek into the yards of chicken wranglers across the city of Madison.

Here at Red Bucket Farm, we are one of six east side sites hosting visitors. There are six additional sites across the west side of town, including two in Middleton. Click on this link for a map to all twelve sites or go to www.madcitychickens.com and click on calendar of events.


Please be aware that hosts may be concerned about bio-security. As tour participants travel from one urban farm to another, it's possible to carry poultry disease on shoes. Some sites may ask guests to step on a disinfectant shoe mat. At our farm, we have plenty of space for guests to stand outside the chicken yard, and we'll offer an array of "chicken shoes" (mostly crocs) at the gate for folks wishing to wander inside the chicken yard and get a closer look at the details of the coop.

If you've ever been interested in keeping chickens, or if you already keep chickens but are curious how other chicken yards are situated and maintained, this is a good chance to show up and ask questions. See you Saturday!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Featured in Ultimate Coop Book

We're pleased to announce that our chicken coop at Red Bucket Farm has been selected to be featured in Tricia Cornell's upcoming book, The Ultimate Chicken Coop Book: Building Plans for Essential Coops and Tractors with 101 Inspirational Variations. Tricia's book features ten basic chicken coop designs including instructions and cut lists, plus a photo gallery of variations.

A few months ago the author posted on the local urban chicken listserv explaining her project and seeking submissions. I sent her a few photos and a quick description. After being accepted into the project, we cleaned, scrubbed, photographed, and recreated many sketches of the design. We also had a telephone interview with the author to discuss our coop research, design and building efforts. Tricia will have our sketches drafted into clear building plans. We think our coop will be the example of a walk-in coop.

We built our coop in May and June 2010. Our primary considerations were having a shelter that is predator-proof, warm in the winter, cool in the summer, healthy for the girls and yet relatively easy to maintain for this baby boomer chicken farmer. Tricia's book will detail all this and much more. The book is scheduled for publication next spring (2014) and you can pre-order your copy at www.amazon.com.

Pretty cool, right? I'm so proud of my husband---coop builder and designer!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Aphid Invasion

Aphids are tiny pale green insects that suck the life out of plants. They tend to congregate on the undersides of leaves, especially on tender new shoots at the ends of branches. I'm not sure that an aphid invasion will completely kill a plant, but they can weaken and damage in the spring as the plant is producing new growth. Look for curled leaf edges and light veining on the surface of the leaves.

This spring the aphids are working their magic on my currants and gooseberries. They aren't terribly picky about their host plant, so keep a close eye on herbs, young trees and bushes, and other tender shoots. Since I have a particular love of currant jam, I'm willing to do battle with the little buggers. Treating aphids isn't difficult, but requires determination and perseverance. I'm spraying them with Safer Insecticide Soap, but dish soap works too. I spray by hand, carefully turning over leaves and spraying the underside of the leaf as well as its stem. Eventually, the heat of the summer will discourage this pest.

In spite of the aphids, my currant and gooseberry bushes are robust and setting fruit. I just finished my last jar of 2012 currant jam, so I'm looking forward to harvesting this year's crop in about five or six weeks---in spite of the little buggers.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Honeybee Orientation Flights

Early this afternoon, I noticed a group of bees outside the red hive taking orientation flights. These bees have recently hatched and so far they have worked exclusively inside the hive. Today they came outside for the first time, stretching their wings and practicing flight for foraging later. Orientation flights occur only three or four feet away from the hive, giving the bees a chance to learn their neighborhood and program their internal global positioning systems. This is an excellent sign that the hive is producing new babies, so their queen must be alive and well.

Of our three hives, this is the only hive to successfully survive the long winter. The blue hive was completely dead, so we harvested the honey, cleaned out the dead bees, and closed all the entrances. The green hive had a few surviving worker bees but no queen. We transferred the survivors to the healthy red hive, harvested honey, removed dead bodies, and closed all the entrances. We use the low-tech crush and strain method of honey harvesting, and we put by about 30 pounds of honey from the two hives.

As the red hive multiplies, we will transfer a few top bars of comb with eggs and larvae into one of the empty hives. This is known as making a split or splitting the hive. The bees should crown a new queen because any worker egg can be groomed into a queen. Beehives grow at an astonishing rate in the spring. We hope to have two or even three hives thriving in a few months.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Tomatoes and Basil

I planted tomatoes and basil today. Spring is really here! Yay!

I started three varieties of tomato plants by seed in early March, first under growing lights in the basement, and more recently in the greenhouse. These plants had been growing in 4" pots. They were nearly root bound and had grown to an enthusiastic 24" tall. They were beginning to bloom---it was high time to move outdoors.

I removed the straw mulch from the beds, which I had laid in November before it snowed. I set the mulch aside on a tarp while I loosened the soil by hand with my Japanese gardening tool. Then I added a layer of sifted compost and got some help to pound in tall support stakes. Installing the stakes before planting helps avoid damaging roots later in the summer. The stakes seem huge now, but will support many pounds of fruit in due course.

It's a good idea to plant tomatoes deeply in the soil, even a little deeper than they were in their small containers. I alternated tomatoes and basil in the beds (they are companion plants) and gave them plenty of breathing room which will help avoid blight. Remember to rotate crops---tomatoes should not be planted in the same beds as last year.

Finally, I mulched again with a thick layer of straw and gave it a quick drink of water (we've had plenty of rain). Mulching helps keep the soil warm on chilly nights, holds in moisture on hot days, and keeps down the weeds. Of course, I was finished when I realized that I might have also planted some dill or parsley in these beds. Tomorrow.....

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Chicks in Day Coop

At Red Bucket Farm, we have a small portable structure we call the day coop. This little unit is especially useful for raising chicks, housing sick or injured hens, and as extra daytime shelter for the flock during the winter months.

Our day coop is 40"x 60" and 24" high. The wood frame is covered securely with hardware cloth. It has a hinged wood roof over an open floor. It keeps our birds relatively safe during the daytime from dogs and hawks, but it is not secure from nocturnal predators like coons and foxes.

Our spring chicks have been enjoying warm days outside in the day coop. The constellation girls (Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Ursa and Venus) are just over three weeks old. They are losing their baby fluff as their feathers fill in. On warm days, we transfer them outside for a few hours, but they always come back into the brooder box indoors at night.

The chicks are kept separately from the mature hens for a few months, until they are all approximately the same size. It's a bit tricky to incorporate new pullets into an established flock because the older hens can be aggressive towards the younger. For now we keep them at a distance. They can see each other across the lawn. Later in the summer, we'll start moving them together.

We had an unusual experience in our day coop this spring. The little coop had been inside the fenced chicken yard all winter and the hens would hang out there during the day. Somehow, a rabbit boldly built a nest inside the day coop. I found a little hole in the ground complete with six baby bunnies last week when I moved the day coop to clean the chicken yard. As I discovered the little critters, all of the hens came running to examine the squirming mass. They seemed as surprised as I was! Chickens are carnivores, so I quickly removed the bunnies to avoid a bloody slaughter. Evidently the day coop provides shelter for more than just my birds!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Building Raised Beds

A friend recently asked for advice regarding how to plow his garden beds. I was a little stunned by the question since plowing isn't ever required at Red Bucket Farm. My friend has a large garden in his urban backyard that he plants in traditional rows, and each spring he needs to cultivate the whole plot before planting.

Here at Red Bucket Farm, we use raised garden beds exclusively. Although the initial investment is more expensive and laborious, it's well worth the effort. Raised beds allow the gardener to create rich, fertile soil that remains loose and easily cultivated by hand. Watering is confined exactly where needed. A properly mulched raised bed rarely requires weeding. And no boots ever touch the soil, completely eliminating soil compaction.

Last weekend we added one new raised bed. First, we built a wood frame and placed it in position. Dimensions for raised beds vary, but we have found that four feet across the bed is maximum width, otherwise it's just too difficult to reach the middle. Three feet across is more comfortable, but standard lumber dimensions makes four feet an economical use of lumber. This bed is 4 x 8. We allow enough space between beds to access with a wheel barrow and mow the lawn.

After the frame is in position, it's time to remove the sod and set it aside on a tarp. Then dig down the depth of one shovel, loosening the soil and set that aside. Replace the pieces of sod at the bottom of the trench, grassy side facing down. Those pieces will decompose naturally, too deep to sprout. The loose soil is placed on top of the torn sod. Next we add various soil enhancements---sifted compost, peat moss, horticultural perlite or vermiculite, sometimes coir, occasionally Turface. The whole blend is mixed together by hand. Voila! Ready for planting.

Each spring we supplement the soil with additional sifted compost. We always use poultry netting (aka chicken wire) around our raised beds to keep out Attila the Bunny, who clearly loves our urban farm.

Even the hillside is terraced into beds. Notice the brick footpaths between the terraces. It's very important to keep big feet out of the beds!

Gardening in raised beds is so efficient that many gardeners discover they can raise as much (or more) food in a small raised bed than in their previous row-style gardening. It's simple to plant intensively in raised beds and less trouble to maintain. Raised beds are also easy to hoop in the spring and fall for extending the seasons. Try it---you won't regret building raised garden beds!