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!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Winter Bees

The weather at Red Bucket Farm has been fairly dreadful in terms of our honeybees. Towards the end of October, we covered the hives with insulation blankets and wrapped the entire bee yard with plastic to protect the hives from western winds.

November was just plain cold. Outdoor air temperatures were way below normal, hovering in the teens during the day and close to zero at night. The bees disappeared into the hives where they clustered together in a tight ball around the queen.

December has been warmer but cloudy, foggy, damp and drippy. It's normal for bees to take "cleansing flights" during winter months. They prefer to not poop in their hives and will slip outside on a sunny afternoon for quick trip to the ladies room. Unfortunately, we haven't seen the sun or the bees in weeks---until yesterday. Finally we had a few hours of sunshine and one of our hives took the opportunity to get outside.

This video is about one second long, but you get the idea. (Sorry that I'm not so clever with technology.) We'll be happy if even one hive survives the winter so that we can build and split with the hardy bees that make it. Replacing bees each spring is expensive---about $100 per hive---and we may not be able to justify the expense if they die each winter.

So, at the risk of repeating myself endlessly, if you still use lawn chemicals, please reconsider. Chemicals weaken the bee population significantly. If the bees approach winter in a compromised state, they can't possibly survive. Pollination is tenuous these days, and without it, we all suffer. Backyard bees are better off than rural bees because foraging is more varied, but lawn chemicals are toxic. Remember that dandelions are bee food.

Meanwhile, we have a glimmer of hope that some of our bees are still alive!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Planting Garlic

Planting garlic is similar to planting tulip and daffodil bulbs: push them deep in the soil in the late fall and wait for the magic to happen in the spring.

First make sure the soil is loose, friable, and free of weeds. Add a bit of compost and get ready to plant. I placed my garlic cloves gently on the surface of the soil to get a sense of how closely to space them. Then I pushed my garden knife into the soil the full length of the blade and dropped the garlic down. After all were planted, I covered the bed with a layer of hay and watered.

Garlic is the crop that keeps on giving. Two years ago I visited Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, where I purchased one head of Inchelium Red (softneck) Garlic and one head of Eric's German White (hardneck) Garlic. I planted them in October 2012 and saved my entire harvest the next summer without eating a bite.

In November 2013, I separated the cloves from the heads of garlic and planted again. By July 2014, I had 73 heads of softneck garlic (about 3.75 pounds) and 31 heads of hardneck garlic. From that harvest, I reserved five heads each of hardneck and softneck for replanting. The five heads of hardneck garlic separated into 17 large cloves; the five heads of softneck garlic separated into 62 small cloves.

I learned that garlic slowly adapts to its micro climate, so my garlic is now Red Bucket Farm garlic, specific to my little piece of paradise. Garlic smells fantastic even when planting, and it's not too late to plant this fall. What are you waiting for?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Drying Herbs

As the growing season slowly comes to an end, I'm experimenting with drying herbs for cooking use as well as for my chickens.

A farm colleague has suggested that using dried herbs in the hen house over the winter will help discourage mites or creepy crawlies and will certainly help the fragrance in that crowded space. For that goal, I've been harvesting the herbs that are underplanted in my front yard orchard--oregano, lemon balm and lavender. It's important to keep these herbs separate from those designated for human consumption because the front yard is subject to every dog in the neighborhood. 'Nuff said?

Other herbs at the farm have been living comfortably in the green house--basil, sage, rosemary, and chives. These I can dry and crush, then store in jars in the kitchen.

The process of drying herbs is simple. I cut the stems into a size that will fit in my large roasting pan and place it in a cool oven at 140 degrees Fahrenheit with the fan running. (I have a convection oven.) I prop the oven door open an inch or so to allow moisture to escape, checking on them periodically. The timing will vary depending on the herb and quantity being processed. When it all seems a bit crunchy, I take it out of the oven and gently pull the leaves off the stems. Then I crush it with my hands and place it in storage containers. The herbs for use in the hen house are stored in large plastic bags in the freezer.

Drying herbs in the oven makes my house smell fantastic. It's quicker than the traditional method of hanging bunches of herbs in the basement or garage, which (for me) usually results in messy bits of dropped leaves and stems. Give this a try!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Bee Hatch

The red hive in the foreground and the green hive in the background are both exhibiting new hatches of bees. Notice most of the bees are taking short flights in little circles right at the hive entrances. These are known as orientation flights as the new bees get to know their surroundings. Soon these bees will begin taking longer flights.

Although the hives are slimming down in preparation for winter, it's good to see new bees and know that the queens are all alive and well.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Fall Crops

One of the challenges of urban farming is learning how to keep all the garden beds productive through the fall months.

This morning's harvest was a continuation of late summer crops---tomatoes, beans and elderberries. About two dozen butternut squash remain on the vines. The fall-bearing raspberries ("Heritage Everbearing") are producing heavily, unlike the summer raspberries ("Nova" and "Latham") which produced almost nothing. We're not sure if that is the result of a harsh winter or uninformed pruning.

After harvesting potatoes, onions and garlic in mid-summer, I replanted those beds with bok choy, spinach, Swiss chard, scallions and beets. Most of these were started by seed in the greenhouse and were ready for transplant when the root crops were harvested. This is the tricky part---knowing when to seed so fall crops are ready to transplant to available beds. I've found that sowing fall crop seeds in the greenhouse in early July is helpful, and sowing seeds outdoors in the beds no later than mid-August is most productive. Any later than that, and our daylight is just too limited to get those seeds germinating even if the weather is cooperative.

Now I'm off to the kitchen to process my crops for winter storage.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Growing Shallots

Shallots have never been a part of my menu planning. I've heard of them, especially when watching cooking shows on television. But they are difficult to find in the grocery store and quite expensive for something described as a "mild onion." Just use a little onion or scallion, right?

In December I decided to educate myself about shallots so I added them to this year's garden plan. I chose Zebrune shallot seeds from Seed Savers Exchange. Zebrune shallots are a heritage variety from France. It's called a banana shallot because of its long shape. The bulbs are pinkish-brown and store well.

Just after the new year, I sprinkled shallot seeds in four inch pots and placed them under lights in the basement. Each time their green tops grew a few inches tall and began to flop over, I would give them a little haircut. In early May, I gently teased the little bunches apart and planted them individually in a raised bed outdoors. They grew tall and strong and without drama. Last week I harvested them and placed them in the sun to dry.

Truth be told, I can't quite figure out why this is a big deal. Shallots grow every bit as easily as onions and scallions. The bunnies and chipmunks leave them alone and they don't require any attention at all. It's a no brainer. If you haven't tried growing your own shallots, I recommend adding this to next year's wish list.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Man's Best Friend

If you've ever visited Red Bucket Farm, you know that we have a loud and protective dog. Beta is a German Shepherd mix. She came to us in 2006 after having survived a couple of different shelter situations. At first Beta was afraid of nearly everything, but given time and love she slowly recovered. Beta is occasionally helpful on the farm, herding chickens and chasing squirrels. She's in charge of farm security, but mostly she's just a good companion.

Over the last several months, we've noticed that Beta no longer enjoyed her daily walks around the neighborhood. It came on gradually. She didn't seem to be afraid of anything necessarily, but she didn't want to go outside very much at all. As the spring rolled into summer, her reluctance grew even more. By June, she refused to walk entirely. I would hold her on the leash at the end of the driveway and she would simply refuse to move. I finally gave up and left her alone, abandoning our daily walks. I knew she was physically healthy, but I wondered about her mental health. Eventually, we got her to the veterinarian for a check up and we decided to put her on anti-depressant medication for a few months.

Beta is much better now, but after some reflection, we don't think her recovery has much to do with medication. We suspect that Beta has been protecting the human she loves the most in the whole world--my husband. In early June, Mr. Red Bucket had his right hip replaced. The previous six months were painful for him as the cartilage in his hip wore away entirely. Of course the rest of the family was willing to walk the dog, but some people prefer to persevere in pain rather than sit around. Using trekking poles, he would walk slowly with the dog trailing behind him.

Recovery has been sweet. My husband and the dog walk every morning. Beta's ears are up, her tail wagging, and she's leading the way once again. If that's not love, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Three Sisters

Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans planted a trio of complementary crops: corn to grow tall, beans to vine up the corn stalks, and low growing squash to shade the root systems. This trio is known as the Three Sisters.

We've grown pole beans and squash together at Red Bucket Farm for a few years, but this year we added corn, the third sister. I was reluctant to grow corn because it encourages raccoons, and heaven knows they don't need any encouragement. But I could hardly resist a little package of corn seeds known as Blue Jade, a miniature plant with ears of sweet steel-blue kernels that turn jade-blue when boiled.

This raised bed is growing nicely. The beans are indeed crawling up the corn (see the photo above). It's important to keep a close eye on the beans, as they grow from toothpick-size to the size of a cigar seemingly overnight. The ears of corn and the squash are still developing. It's a different kind of sisterhood!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Marilyn's First Egg

Marilyn laid her first egg today! She's been preparing for this big moment for a few weeks. Yesterday morning she snuggled in a nest box for a good thirty minutes--she was practicing--and for the last couple of weeks she's been hanging out in the hen house watching the older girls carefully as they lay. This morning Marilyn was mighty bossy to the other pullets, and I could tell she was feeling all grown up and important.

Marilyn is a Silver-Laced Wyandotte. We named her after actress Marilyn Monroe because a Wyandotte is a full-bodied and curvaceous hen, and the silver lacing on her plumage makes her an awfully glamorous addition to the chicken yard. Marilyn was hatched on March 10, 2014. The previous Wyandotte on Red Bucket Farm took a full seven months to lay her first egg, so Marilyn is ahead of schedule.

This morning's egg is tiny--less than two inches long--with a perfectly smooth and shiny tan-colored shell. Subsequent eggs will grow in size. Marilyn has finished bragging and strutting. She's settled in the dirt for a quiet afternoon in the shade. Well done, Marilyn!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Infused Vodka

Fruit infused vodkas are growing in popularity. They're fun and easy to make and almost too easy to drink. Last fall I made my first attempt at infused vodka with cranberries, which we thought was delicious. This summer the currants have been so plentiful that we experimented with currant infused vodka. In the photo above, the glass on the left contains red currant infused vodka; the glass on the right has black currant infused vodka.

You don't need to be a farmer to try this project. Begin with two cups of fruit in a medium sauce pan. I added a half cup of sugar to my tart currants and cranberries. Cook over low heat until the skins just begin to pop. Pour the fruit mixture into a large jar. Add four cups of cheap vodka. Wait for two weeks, then strain and serve.

If I wanted to make raspberry, strawberry or peach infused vodka, I would stir only a few tablespoons of sugar into the fruit and let it rest for 15 minutes (without cooking) before adding the vodka.

My Jewish friends tell me this is known as vishnyak or vishniak in Yiddish culture. We enjoy our vishnyak over ice or just neat in small cordial glasses. Be careful---it's not kool-aid.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Harvesting Garlic

Earlier this week I began harvesting garlic. I carefully removed it from the soil and spread it on the drying table in the sun to cure for a week or two. A tarp is handy for cover at night and during potential rainstorms.

Look closely at the photo above. On the left is the regular garlic clove, but on the right you see little bulblets about five inches up the stalk. These little bulbs were growing above ground. None of my usual gardening resources gave me any clue about this, so I did what we all do these days---I googled it. Occasionally a very cold winter will cause garlic to grow above ground. This is evidently some sort of defense mechanism. I will use both the underground and above ground cloves. After all, I've already harvested the garlic scapes earlier this summer. Scapes are seedpods that grow at the end of the leaves and sap energy from the main bulb. I use them in cooking as if they were chives or scallions. They are delicious and quite expensive at the market.

There are three kinds of garlic: softneck garlic, which grows many smaller cloves in one head; hardneck garlic, which grows fewer large cloves; and elephant garlic, which is very big cloves. Softneck garlic is the kind that is usually sold in the grocery store, but hardneck garlic is commonly available at the farmers markets. At Red Bucket Farm we grow Inchelium Red softneck and Eric's German White hardneck.

My hardneck garlic is still in the ground (see photo) and needs to be harvested. No time to blog! Thanks for checking in.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Chicken Predators

Yesterday I agreed to a telephone interview with a student journalist writing for The Badger Herald. I was told that the article was about urban chickens and urban farms, but I quickly learned there was an ulterior motive. It seems the writer's mother knows urban hen keepers who are complaining about foxes. These folks have contacted the Department of Natural Resources and expect some sort of action regarding foxes in the city.

Red Bucket Farm is situated immediately adjacent to a wildlife sanctuary, part of the city parks department. Our section of the park is dense trees, brambles, and a few hiking paths. We have all kinds of predators---foxes, coyotes, hawks and a pair of great horned owls. We rely on these predators to keep the rabbit, squirrel and chipmunk population in check. Without their help, I'd have to start trapping the little critters to save my crops.

We researched our chicken coop for months before building it in 2010. Since safety was our primary concern, we covered the entire coop with half-inch hardware cloth. The hardware cloth covers the walls, windows, and ceiling; it's also sandwiched between two layers of flooring. We attached it with screws and fender washers. All doors and windows are secured with locks. It may seem extreme, but we've never lost a hen to any predator.

Remember that chickens sleep from dusk to dawn, and darkness causes them to go into "torpor," a kind of stupor or unconsciousness in which the heart rate is lowered. They can't make any effort to defend themselves. This is why chickens roost in a high place at night.

So let's be clear: protecting the urban flock from predators is a farmer's responsibility. Anyone who staples chicken wire to a wooden frame and calls it a coop is asking for trouble. Our hens provide us with fresh eggs, manure for fertilizing, and hours of entertainment. We owe it to them to care for them properly.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Picking Cherries

We've reached the point at Red Bucket Farm where we are much too busy---sowing, weeding, watering, fertilizing (chicken poop tea!), harvesting, cleaning, processing, tending the chickens and bees---to have time to write a blog post. But there is a bit of photographic evidence that the orchard ladder is useful and well worth the cost.  Our three tart cherry trees suffered no losses over the cold winter.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Container Gardening

Every year my gardening ambitions exceed my ground space, and so I use containers as overflow.  Many herbs grow well in pots. I'm growing parsley, rosemary, chives, pineapple sage and basil in containers on our back patio. Elevating them off the ground keeps the voracious bunnies from eating tender seedlings. Fresh herbs are amazing to eat and easy to grow.

This year is the first time I'm growing "Tom Thumb" dwarf peas in containers. The pea pods are beginning to form and we're excited to sample them soon.

I'm experimenting with growing leafy greens in shallow planting dishes that we like to call "salad bowls." In the foreground is kale, plus spinach and bok choi in the background (not yet germinated). Notice that I've hung the shade cloth in the greenhouse. It's frequently 100 degrees in there!

Finally, I intended to put this broccoli in the ground in a new raised bed, but it's not going to happen this year. I transplanted the little seedlings into 6" pots. I've got nothing to lose at this point, so we'll see if it works.

If you have even a tiny patio or balcony, you can do this too!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Early Harvests

I love the earliest harvests of spring, especially asparagus and rhubarb. The first taste of grilled asparagus reminds me why I'm a farmer. These two crops pop up so early and easily in the spring that they seem effortless. Of course, I've conveniently forgotten that I composted and mulched them last fall. Right now, they seem almost miraculous and provide enough inspiration to lure me outside to the gardens.

This morning I harvested baby carrots, kale and bok choi. I started them by seed in February, beneath grow lights indoors. They were transferred outdoors into a covered raised bed in early April. The weather was lousy and I didn't expect to harvest anything. It isn't much of a harvest, but I'm grateful that anything managed to survive this spring.

The herbs have done nicely in the greenhouse--basil, chives, rosemary, and sage--also providing a little inspiration for my gardening soul.

That's all for now. I'm off to bake rhubarb custard pie. It's what's for breakfast in the morning.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Managing the Orchard

Anyone who has gardened for more than a year or two knows that the garden is never finished. Most great gardens are in a constant state of transition as the gardener discovers which plants flourish in any specific location and which do not. This is also true at our fruit orchard here at Red Bucket Farm.

Last year, our large peach tree produced ninety pounds of juicy sweet fruit. We're still eating from that harvest! But the winter of 2013-14 was cold and colder, and the peach tree has barely survived. This tree is located at the bottom of the hill in a micro-climate that didn't fare as well as the trees up the hill. It didn't bloom this spring at all, and we're nursing it with chicken poop tea and hoping that it will recover this summer to produce again in 2015.

On the other hand, our three cherry trees bloomed beautifully and are developing little fruits. Hooray for winter-hardy pie cherries!

The new trees in the front yard orchard are doing well, or most of them are. Two peach trees, three pear trees and one apricot tree all bloomed lightly and are making a few small fruits---not bad considering these are still very small trees. One additional apricot tree (important for cross pollination) is struggling. This is the second tree of that variety we've planted in that location and it's just not happy. We suspect that the roots are too wet and the soil isn't draining well. We've removed the tree to a container for recuperation, and we've ordered a different apricot variety to plant in its place. We'll create a mounded hill to help with drainage and we'll amend the soil with Turface and chicken grit.

Every evening we wander through the orchard and check on our trees. Slowly we're discovering which trees belong in each location. A fruit tree gives a lot of bang for your buck, so it pays to be attentive and invest in the home orchard.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Gardening Hand Tools

All our gardening efforts at Red Bucket Farm occur in raised beds or terraced beds, so hand tools are very important. We've never used a rototiller! So without further ado, here are my favorite hand tools.

This is my cultivator. It's triangular head moves large amounts of soil with minimal effort. I use this extensively in the spring when I'm preparing the beds for planting---loosening the soil after the compaction of winter snow and stirring in fresh compost. I use it again in the fall when I remove old plants and add more compost. I painted the handle bright blue after I lost it in the yard for a few days.

This garden knife is awesome. Manufactured by A.M. Leonard, the six inch blade is serrated on one side, good for cutting off those volunteer black walnut trees that the squirrels insist on planting. This tool is the perfect dibber, opening a quick hole in the soil to drop in seed potatoes or tiny onion plants. It's also great for opening bags of chicken bedding and food. Please notice that I washed it nicely for it's photograph.

I've had this hand rake for many years. I use it to remove the straw mulch covering beds in the spring and fall, for raking the yuck from between the currant bushes, and for a hundred other things that I can't remember. It's not particularly valuable, but I don't know how I would function without it.

This is a CobraHead weeder, made right here in Wisconsin. It's tiny head is perfect for weeding in small spaces. A bright blue plastic handle means that I don't lose it too often.

Forget those adorable little hand shovels that move dirt a few tablespoons at a time. This scoop moves a considerable amount of compost. Sorry that I didn't wash this one.

Remember that hand tools do not require gasoline or spew pollution. Their storage needs are simple---just clean them up, oil them occasionally and store in a dry location.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Accidental Rooster

Our spring chicks are now eight weeks old and no longer little balls of fluff. They have grown adult feathers and spend their days outside comfortably in the portable coop. The only problem we're experiencing is that one of them isn't a pullet (hen). He's a cockerel and he is quickly becoming a rooster.

We named him Bob. His feet are huge. His comb and wattles are impressive for only eight weeks. He's bigger than the pullets in his breed (White Rock), and he's much bigger than the other breeds (Australorp, Wyandotte, Americauna). He protects all of his girls dutifully.

The Chicken Whisperer came home for a short visit today. When she picked up Bob, he immediately raised his hackles and was as fierce as possible, but soon calmed down. Impressive, isn't he?

Roosters aren't allowed in our municipality, so Bob will move on soon. It's been fun to watch his distinctly rooster behaviors. We'll miss him. I think....

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Introducing Spring Chicks

We picked up our chicks at Abendroth's Hatchery on Monday morning. The hatchery was clean, friendly and well organized. Our girls were carefully packaged and ready to go when we arrived.

In previous years, we've gotten our chicks delivered by US Postal, so the "day old" chicks were really three days old upon arrival. Now that we've experienced true day-old chicks, we can clearly see a difference in size. What a difference a day makes in the life of something so small and fragile!

And now, without further ado, here they are:

This is Little Mittens, an Easter Egger. She will grow golden brown plumage and lay green eggs. Her name is a long-standing family joke. We haven't allowed Kavi to name any of the animals around here until today....for obvious reasons. He says he's going to get a mastiff or an Angus bull and name it Little Mittens, which he pronounces Wittle Mittens in a very high voice.

Pictured above is Queen Latifah, a Black Australorp. She will grow into a beautiful bird with shiny, soft black feathers, black legs and black beak. Right now she has a little white diaper butt. She will lay light brown eggs.

This one is Marilyn, a Silver Laced Wyandotte. She'll grow silvery white plumage with black edges outlining most of her feathers. We expect her to be the glamour girl of the flock, with her curvy body shape and fancy dress. She'll lay light brown eggs.

These three are Ping, Pang and Pong. They are White Plymouth Rock, an excellent dual purpose breed. Their names come from Puccini's opera Turandot. Yeah, you knew I couldn't stay out of the naming process entirely. But I tried!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Collapsible Brooder Box

This morning we reassembled the brooder box in preparation for the arrival of day-old chicks on Monday. This is the fourth year we've used this box.

Our brooder box is stored in six (relatively) flat pieces: the base/floor, four side walls, and the screen top. The entire design grew from an old window frame found at the curb. Using hardware cloth as a screen, the window frame is the top of the box. The hardware cloth is sturdy enough to keep out our cats and hold up the heat lamps.

The base/floor of the box is covered with cheap vinyl squares, making clean up easier than scrubbing a rough plywood base. In the photos, you can see the 1x2 wood frame in the corners and around the top perimeter. The design is easy to screw together now and unscrew for storage later. Be sure to keep the screws properly labeled in a container during the off season.

It's much too cold in the garage right now, so the chicks will begin their lives in the basement. They're adorable at first, but soon begin to toss around their bedding materials. It's a dusty mess. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Tomorrow we'll add the heat lamps and thermometer. We need to get it around 90 degrees before the arrival of the babies on Monday. We're nearly ready!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ginger Lemonade

Are you suffering from late winter creeping crud? Here's an easy recipe that will sooth a scratchy throat.

Ginger Lemonade

6. cups water
1 cup sugar
1 cup bottled lemon juice

Combine all ingredients in a pot, simmer and steep. Simple!

I use a variety of ginger. You can buy crystallized ginger in little bags (shown above). If you feel ambitious, you can buy fresh ginger root and grate it yourself. We buy grated ginger in small jars, found in the ethnic section of the grocery store. We also just discovered a jar of dried ginger slices from Penzeys in the back of our cabinet. I suppose you could even use dried ginger powder.

Any unused portions can be stored in the refrigerator and reheated later. Try it!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Hooped Raised Beds

Last fall, this covered raised bed grew spinach, Swiss chard, arugula and kale, which we harvested by Thanksgiving. After harvest, we decided to retain the hooped cover over the winter months so that (theoretically) we could access this bed in early spring. Since then, Old Man Winter has completed buried the whole thing until this weekend, when my boys shoveled out the excess snow and tossed it downhill. We hope the sun will warm the raised bed in the next few weeks to allow planting of early spring greens. Meanwhile, I'm sowing seeds--indoors, of course--in 4" containers for transplant when the weather allows, perhaps late March or early April.

Gardening under snow? Well, maybe.....