Monthly Archives: March 2016

Backyard Chicken Basics

Eglu with baby chicks

The Eglu lets chicks roam, safely.

I always wanted chickens so one year, for my birthday, my husband bought me an Eglu which is a British invention that makes keeping chickens easy and keeps the chickens safe, too.

Once I got their home assembled, it was time to order the chicks!

Because it can get to -20 where I live, I wanted a hardy breed. Research told me that the New Hampshire Red would fit the climate and lay beautiful, brown eggs. So I ordered 4 baby chicks from McMurray.

NOTE:  in case you’re wondering, no chickens died in this story….well they did die but they were old ladies by that time.

I did my homework on what baby chicks needed, took over the powder room on the lower level of my home and put together a brooder using a large cardboard

A homemade brooder from a box.

My brooder looked like this one from Seattle Seedling.

box, wood shavings (like the ones I use in my horse’s stall), a brooder heat lamp, a galvanized waterer and a little galvanized chick feeder.

When my one-day old chicks arrived in the mail, I was all set.

All 4 babies survived my ill-informed ministrations including cleaning their butts to prevent “pasting up.”

Within a week, they were outside and in their Eglu.

Eglu with baby chicks

The Eglu lets chicks roam, safely.

Baby chicks in their Eglu in my backyard.

The Eglu keeps the chicks safe as they explore the yard.

Here, you see them dining al fresco — enjoying the sun and fresh air without worrying about predators like the hawks and fox that are our neighbors.

So, I was all set for my backyard adventure with chickens, I thought.

However, even though I bought and read the top books on having hens in your backyard and even though I only got 4 baby chicks, I  wasn’t really prepared for getting, raising and caring for chickens.

In fact, once the chickens and I got down to business, I had more questions than answers!

For example, when could I expect my first eggs? Why do chickens but production in winter? How will the chickens do in blizzard conditions and sub-zero temperatures? What the hell is moulting? When does it happen? Is it really painful for the chicken? How do I know if my chicken has bumblefoot? (No joke — it’s called bumblefoot and it’s bad.)

I think if I had known all the things that could go wrong, I never would have gotten chickens. But I did and everyone survived. If I had it to do over, I would still read and research but I’d also get some hands on experience, too!

Watching my backyard chicks

Chicken watching with my Westies who seem really interested.

If you have a friend who already has chickens, visit, watch and learn. If not, universities, county extension offices and some hatcheries offer beginner classes.

Or, if your lucky enough to live anywhere near Hockessin, Delaware, you could sign up for the backyard chicken class being held at Mt. Cuba on Saturday, April 2nd!

If you do get into backyard chickens, there are also tons of forums where people just like us are happy to share what they know! And if you’re an organic gardener, chickens are some of the best organic pest control I can think of!


How To Make Your Own Kombucha!

Kombucha is one of the hottest probiotic beverages on the market today. You can buy kombucha in just about every health food store and co-op in the country. But you’re going to pay a pretty penny for each 8 ounce glass you drink.

Home-brewed kombucha is easy and inexpensive to make

Probiotic kombucha tastes great.

At a local food exchange, where kombucha is on tap, one glass is $4.00.

All kombucha is is a fermented black tea flavored with organic juices or fruits of your choice and maybe even a few spices. So, when I recovered from sticker shock, I decided to calculate how much a glass of home-brewed kombucha would run.

Would you believe home-brewed kombucha costs about $.31 a glass? Yep, I said 31 cents a glass and that’s using pure cane sugar and premium Sada Chai from the Tao of Tea company.

You can make 8 glasses of kombucha, at home, for the cost of a single glass at the store. That’s why I started making my own kombucha!

Once you have your SCOBY (Symbiotic Combination of Bacteria and Yeast that you see here) all you need to buy again will be tea and sugar. SCOBYs look a bit like you might imagine the blob looked like in the 1950’s sci-fi thriller. But don’t let the SCOBY’s looks put you off.

This healthy SCOBY is making kombucha.

Healthy SCOBYs look a bit like jelly fish.

This is a powerful and living organism that eats the sugar you put in your black tea, fermenting it and giving you 8 glasses of kombucha for about $2.50.

And she does it in 7 to 10 days!

How do you get started?

It looks a bit daunting but if you follow the directions, it is easy and your kombucha will be delicious!

  1. Bring a gallon of water to a boil, then turn off the heat and immediately add 4 Tablespoons of loose tea and 1 cup of organic cane sugar.  Cover the pot with a lid and let the tea cool to room temperature. If it’s too warm (anything approaching 90°) it will kill the SCOBY.
  2. When the tea is room temperature (check this with a thermometer) strain out the tea leaves, and pour the liquid into your glass or ceramic gallon container. Add your SCOBY and 1-2 cups of kombucha starter liquid it shipped in. NOTE: this is for the first batch you make.  The batches thereafter, just pour off and bottle all but 2 cups of kombucha then pour the fresh tea right into the gallon jar with your SCOBY .

    SCOBY fermenting tea to make kombucha.

    Leave room at the top for your SCOBY to grow.

  3. Cover the container with a clean cloth, kitchen towel, or handkerchief kept in place with a rubber band.  Place the jar in a warm spot (I put mine in the oven with the oven light on) that is out of direct sunlight and where it won’t be disturbed or moved.Make sure that the cloth or towel is breathable but the weave is tight enough to keep out fruit flies, gnats, and other undesirables.Your SCOBY may sink or float on the top, both are okay.  In 2-3 days, you may see a translucent jelly like mass floating on the top of your tea.  This is a baby SCOBY beginning to form.  Leave it undisturbed so that it can grow properly.
  4. Taste your kombucha 7 or 8 days after starting it using a straw inserted down the side of the SCOBY, not through it. Ideally, kombucha should have a slightly sharp and acidic bite. How long it takes to make a batch depends on the temperature of your home and how sweet or sour you’d like it to be.  Most batches will be ready in 7-10 days.  The longer it brews, the sharper it gets.
  5. Just before you think you will be bottling your kombucha, brew another batch of sweetened black tea so it will be cooled to room temperature and ready for you to use to start the next batch using the mother or baby SCOBY and the reserved kombucha.
  6. When your kombucha is ready, pour all but the last 2 cups into clean bottles or jars, straining it as you pour to catch any tiny SCOBYs that may be starting.  Leave the mother SCOBY in the original jar while you bottle your batch. NOTE:  keeping the mother SCOBY in the original jar minimizes contact and automatically reserves the 1-2 cups of starter liquid you need for your next batch.
  7. If you have a baby SCOBY growing with the mother and you want to separate them, now is the time.  You can start a second gallon of kombucha going with the new baby or give it to a friend so they can home-brew.
  8. Start your next batch by just pouring the room temperature black tea and sugar mixture you’ve already prepared over the SCOBY and starter tea you left in the gallon jar, cover and start the brewing cycle again.

Kombucha will naturally have a slight fizziness.  To increase the carbonation and level of tartness, leave the bottled kombucha on a counter top for several days after bottling.  BURP the bottles to keep the pressure from building up and the brew from spurting out of the bottle when opened.  Keep bottles stored in a refrigerator once the brew is finished fermenting.

Once you get the rhythm – brew tea and cool it down, strain and drain kombucha into bottles for finishing, add tea to your SCOBY and start again – you’ll understand why I say it’s easy to home brew your own kombucha.

Important notes:
Always clean your hands, utensils, and anything that might touch your kombucha with hot water and distilled vinegar. Do not use soap, (especially antibacterial soap) as it may harm or kill the kombucha culture. Your kombucha is alive!  Make sure to handle it with care.

Only use lead-free glass and ceramic for fermenting. Kombucha will absorb toxins out of the container that it’s brewed in (much like how it pulls toxins out of our bodies).

SCOBYs have an unusual appearance, scent, and feel, but don’t let this discourage you! You’ll quickly grow accustomed to their odd appearance and will get used to handling them.

If the SCOBY grows mold, throw the liquid and SCOBY into the compost and begin with fresh materials.

One thing I didn’t mention is flavoring your home brew. There are any number of tasty additions including organic juice, fresh or dried fruit, berries, herbs, and spices for whatever flavor suits your mood.

And, next week, I will share some of my favorite kombucha recipes!


Beekeeping: Getting Started!

The buzz about beekeeping seems to be getting louder or maybe I am just listening a bit better.Bee-apis

Margaret Roach’s podcast this week is with Olivia Carroll, author of The Bees in Your Backyard.

The April-May issue of National Wildlife offers a special issue focused on gardening for wildlife and offering a feature article on nurturing native bees.

Bee on sunflower.

A bee visits one of my sunflowers.

Jacqueline Freeman, natural beekeeper and author, was one of the stars of the recent Food Summit.

Bees have always been something I always dreamed about having in my backyard and this spring, my dream is coming true!

I am taking part in a research project involving “ruburbian”dwellers – not quite a suburbanite and not quite a rube. And I will be getting a hive placed in my back yard, lessons on beekeeping and a chance to care for them all summer long.

And I am trying to win a hive all for myself via Margaret Roach! Bees are her latest giveaway. And I could really use them.

Cherry, apple, pear, and pluot trees share space with 13 blueberry bushes and about as many thornless blackberry canes in my backyard. This spring, I am adding elderberry bushes to my meadow. And I’m currently growing chamomile, fennel and marshmallow in my basement to sow around the new additions and keep the lemon balm, milkweed and sunflowers that are already growing there, company.

Add my very big, totally organic veggie and herb garden and it’s clear that I could use all the pollinating help I can get!

I just completed the Chester County Beekeeping Association’s Beginning Beekeeping so I could make a plan for getting my own bees. And now, I am doing research, reading and getting really excited about getting bees!

I would LOVE to provide a happy, safe, pesticide free home on my 2.3 acre “farmden.”

If you want to get an up close look at bees, visit the National Geographic feature with photographs by Sam Droege and his team who are populating a database using data collected by backyarders around the country.

How Easy Is Organic Gardening? Very!

Organic gardening is easy.

Organic gardening is easy to do.

I wrote Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us for a young woman who wanted to go organic but was sure it was just too hard to do.

I also wrote it because I remember being in exactly that same place almost 40 years ago.

Organic gardening was hard and organic gardeners were weirdos, people who lived on the fringe of “real” life.  But I was intrigued so I decided I needed more information. When I wanted to learn about organic gardening, all those years ago, there was no Internet (hard to believe, right?).

I’d never heard of Ruth Stout or Jerome I. Rodale.  Euell Gibbons wasn’t touting Grape Nuts, yet and Adele Davis had already been dismissed as a “nutrition nut.”  Jim Crockett (Crockett’s Victory Garden on PBS) hadn’t even shown up on television (yes, Virginia, we did have television back then)!

So, I had to start my search the old-fashioned way.  I got on my bike and went to the library.

Using the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature (oh god…I am a dinosaur), I searched for magazines to help me get started.  There weren’t many — a handful really — but I did find information and people to help pave my path to becoming an organic gardener.

Today, it’s a lot easier to find organic gardening resources.  Connect to the Internet, search for those terms and you will get more than 4 million links to sites that offer everything from tips to tools.

But beware, many of these so-called “resources” just want to sell you something. I think I had it easier (back in the stone age), to find one or two clear voices, crying in the gardening wilderness!

I learned a lot from these “old guys and gurus” of organic gardening. I want to share what I learned and launch your gardening careers fast and easy.  So, I’m going to start with this basic truth:

…organic gardening is as easy as you want to make it.  It’s all about what you want to grow.

Start by figuring out what you want to plant, how many plants you want to put in (based on how large your garden space is) and what works in your planting zone.

If you just want to get out there and get started…here are two staples in my garden that are easy to grow and don’t have many bugs that “bug” them.

I always have tomatoes – they’re a great vegetable to grow in a pot (if you don’t have enough room to garden or your dirt’s not ready yet) or a plot.  If you’re just starting, try to buy compact or “bush” plants.  They’re easier to handle and don’t grow nearly as tall as indeterminate varieties like Brandywine or Early Girl.

I always plant lettuce, too.  A bag of spring greens  in my grocery store costs $5.00 for 12 ounces.  Fifty two weeks of buying greens comes to just under $300.  You can raise enough for you and your significant other for less than $3.00 a year.  

You can buy seed and follow the directions on the packet to plant it.  Or your can buy small starts or plants and toss them in your dirt (in a pot or a plot).  All lettuce needs is dirt, water and a little sun.

And when it gets a bit too warm for lettuce and it starts to bolt (get tall and taste bitter), if you let it go to seed, you can plant a new crop in the fall for free!

One tip from someone whose motto is, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” Start small and only plant those crops you want.

Since it’s already planting season just about everywhere in the United States, I want you to gather up your courage, grab your car keys and head out to a nursery near you to buy your first plants (time enough for seed starting next spring).

Dig a hole, water your transplants in and sit back and watch mother nature take over.  Need more help? Download my e-book. Free for Prime members and only $2.99….for everyone else.


How To Grow The Sweetest Peppers

The only pepper I saw in my mother’s garden was the green, bell pepper.  And I never liked them.  The taste was too strong, bitter, almost biting.  So I never planted peppers until I found red and yellow bells.

Assorted bell pepper fruits from Mexico

Discovering peppers of color led to what is now my favorite pepper of all time, the Italian sweet pepper.

Italian sweet peppers are at the heart of any great sausage and pepper sandwich you’ve ever had.  And Italian sweet peppers add flavor to any recipe including my scallopini (recipes below the “bugs that bug” peppers).

Italian Sweet peppers have a rich green color that gradually turns brilliant red.  The flesh of the pepper is medium thick. The fruit is slightly curved, tapering to a pointed end.

Italian sweet peppers

Italian sweet peppers are a staple in my garden.

Today, Italian sweet peppers are the only peppers I grow.

Starting From Seed
Peppers are a warm weather plant so, like tomatoes and eggplant, I always start them from seed.  And I always start peppers 2 to 3 weeks earlier than the date specified on the seed packets.  Why?

In my zone, peppers that are started 8 weeks before my last frost (around May 15th) just aren’t big enough or strong enough to set fruit before the middle to end of July.  As a result, if I started them when the seed packet said to, I’d only get a few peppers from each one. If I start the plants indoors and early, my plants are larger and more vigorous and I get a glorious crop from every one!

I use 24-cell APS starter kits from Gardener’s Supply and I highly recommend them.  Funny thing is, I’ve been using cells for seed starting for years and now, recent research revealed that growing peppers in larger tray cell sizes or containers will produce larger transplants.

The kits ensure that your seeds and seedlings get just the right amount of water while sprouting and growing.  Not too much – not too little. The capillary mats in the cell system take advantage of osmosis.  Because of the system design, I never have to contend with damping off.

I fill the cells with Gardener’s Supply germinating mix, place 4 seeds in each cell…two in opposite corners.  Then I cover each cell with a bit of sphagnum moss, put on the plastic top and set the tray on two ceramic tile that sit directly on the heat mats. I fill the tray with water and then check 4 or 5 days to see if the seeds have sprouted.

NOTE:  You have to check your seed trays every day to make sure there is enough water in them.  Because I sit them almost directly on the heat mat, the water evaporates pretty fast.  If the seeds dry out at any time during the sprouting or early growing stages, the plants will either die, outright, or just malinger – no grow very much at all.

As soon as the seeds sprout, I lift off the clear cover and drop the light to within 1 inch of the cells.  As the plants grow, I keep the trays watered and I keep the light as close to the seedlings as I can without touching them.  If the light touches them, even a fluorescent light, it will burn the baby’s leaves and slow the plant’s growth.

When the seedlings have two full sets of leaves, I give the plants a very mild fertilizer called Plant Health Care for Seedlings, also from Gardener’s Supply,

Once the plants are 3 to 4 weeks old, I transplant them into 2 inch peat pots.  NOTE:  If all the seeds sprout, either separate the seedlings and put one in each peat pot or clip the smaller of the seedlings off with nail scissors so the remaining seedling has more room to grow.

Transplanting Peppers To The Garden
Before you put your pepper plants in the ground, make sure you are NOT planting them in the same area where you had tomatoes, eggplant or potatoes last year.

Peppers are in the Solanaceae plant family and are botanically related to these popular garden vegetables.  Because they are related, peppers can share the same spectrum of pest problems and should not be rotated into soil recently lived in by their kissing cousins.

Also, whether you’re growing from seed or using transplants (unless they were outside when you bought them), you have to “harden off” your plants before you stick them in the garden.

Hardening off does NOT involve tools or torture.  It just means that you have to introduce your transplants to the outdoors, gradually.

Five or six days before you want to put them in the garden, start setting them outside for a couple of hours the first 2 days and keep an eye on them.  Make sure they have water and are not staked out in high sun or high wind.  Then leave them out all day for 2 days then overnight for one night.

NOTE:  also, when hardening off, stop fertilizing.  If the plants have small flowers or fruit on them, pinch both off.  You want to help the transplant direct all of its energy to rooting in the soil before it tries to set flowers or fruit.

Remember, peppers like warm earth and warm air – even warmer than tomatoes.  So the optimal temperature for them to go into the ground is 75 to 85 degrees. Peppers are typically transplanted about two weeks later than tomatoes, for me that’s early June.

Peppers can be planted in single rows or twin (double) rows on a raised bed. Space the pepper plants 12 to 24 inches apart and space rows about 4 feet apart. If you decide to use a double row, make the rows about 18 inches apart on the bed and put the plants in the ground in a zigzag pattern.

By the way, peppers and tomatoes don’t work and play well together so don’t plant tomatoes on one side of your trellis or fence and peppers on the other.  The pepper plants will grow but will be stunted and the peppers themselves will be small and prone to rotting.

Feeding The Peppers
If you don’t want to use fertilizer on your transplants, here’s a little trick I learned from a farmer friend.  Crush up eggshells and put about ½ of a cup of them in the bottom of the hole. Toss a bit of soil on top of the crushed shells before you put the pepper plant in so the baby roots (cilia) are not cut.

Crushed egg shells are slow to break down but will feed the plants.  And they are free so I love using them as my fertilizer.  By the way, you can also use crushed egg shells to stop slugs…just by sprinkling them around the base of your plants.

Peppers have shallow roots so water them when they need it and don’t hoe too close.  Also, stake peppers so that when fruit loads are heavy, the plants don’t topple from weight or high winds.  I use old, inverted tomato cages as you can see below.

Staking sweet peppers with tomato cages

Sweet peppers need staking.

That sounds odd but the cages work better than anything else I have tried.

I put the tomato cage over the plant with the wide ring on the ground and fasten the ring down with ground staples.  Then I gather up the tips of the cage and secure them with a wire tie.  The pepper plant stays inside the cage, grows up straight and is supported even in the heaviest wind or thunderstorm.  And I don’t have to tie the pepper plants up.

How to Grow Peppers is excerpted from my Kindle organic gardening book Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us and is available on Amazon.

How To Grow Beets

Baby beets grown indoors from seed.

Beets started indoors can be transplanted outdoors as soon as you can work the soil — if you protect them from frost.

Beets are known as cool season crops.  They really like cool temperatures and can be seeded as soon as you can work the soil.  And beets are one vegetable that should be organically grown.

My mom raised the absolute best beets I have ever eaten.  Every time I drove to her farm in the far end of Virginia, she would somehow know exactly when I was arriving.  There, on the table, steam rising, butter melting, would be a big bowl of sliced beets, just for me.

But I never planted beets in my own garden, not before she died, not after she died.  Then, one day, while browsing through, I saw Chioggia beets.

Beautiful, round and ruby-red on the outside but when you cut them open, there are concentric white bands all the way through each slice. I fell in love with beets, again.

Beets Are Easy Peasy
I’ve had beets in my garden now for the last 5 years and think they are among the easiest plants to grow.  But if you Google “growing beets,” you will literally get more than 1 million entries.

Don’t be scared!

There are only a couple of things you need to know to raise not just 1 but at least 2 crops of beets every year. (That’s how many I can grow in Zone 6b.)  WARNING: if you ignore what you are about to read, you will get red marbles…that will not cook or eat easy.  I know.  My first crop was used in a game of ringer.

The Dirt
This is almost one of the only requirements of beets and it’s one of the most important.  It’s also the bit of information I didn’t have when I raised my first crop of red marbles.  Beets really, really like loose, well-drained soil. They will put up with a wide range of conditions but won’t grow as big or as beautiful.

So do a bit of soil prep if you can. It may take a bit of time and effort but it’s worth it; I know.  And if you get the soil right, it’s smooth sailing to harvest time.

Remove stones since they will hinder growth.  If you’re growing in clay, add compost to loosen the soil and keep the soil from crusting after watering or rainfall.  And make sure your soil is acidic – beets like a pH range of 6.2 to 6.8.

When To Plant
Don’t plant in the middle of your summer season.  Beets won’t like it.  They are a perfect cool weather crop.  Although they can live through the heat (like the rest of us), they prefer a temperatures of 60 to 65 F and bright sunny days but they can also survive cold weather as long as they don’t get caught in a freeze.  So, beets are a great, “long-season” crop.

How To Plant
You can (and I do) start beets indoors but beet seeds are outdoor babies from the get go.  As soon as your soil can be worked in the spring, you can plant them.  The seeds aren’t really just one seed – each of these little jewels contains a couple of beet seeds.  Sow the seeds 1/2-inch deep and I drop each seed about 3 inches away from the other seeds.  I also plant in rows about 12 inches apart.

Beets seeds are pretty slow to germinate so make sure you keep the bed moist until you see their little heads peeking out of the soil.  I usually water a bit, every day.  Once they start to pop up through the soil, I keep watering but usually every other day.

Once they are established, just make sure that you don’t let them dry out.  But don’t over water either.  Too dry or too wet and your beets will not be happy.

TIP:  I don’t thin; I transplant.
Most advice online and in books says you have to thin beets rather than transplant.  Wrong!

Despite what people will tell you, you can transplant beet seedlings and almost double your crop. And it’s easy to do.

I wait until the leaves on the plants are about 2 inches long before I try transplanting.  The night before the big move, I water the bed thoroughly.  Then, early in the morning, armed with a #2 pencil, I head to the raised bed where my beets live.

I look for beet plants that are too close together. Because I’m not be most patient person when dropping seeds in soil, I can usually find 3 or 4 beet babies clumped together.

Once I’ve found the baby beet clump I want to move, using a tablespoon or serving spoon, I gently dig around the whole clump and bring up a spoon full of soil with the beet roots intact.  Then I push my pencil into the ground, making holes spaced about 3 inches apart, for each of the babies.

Teasing the roots apart, gently, (a trick I learned from my Amish neighbors) I drop each beet baby into its own hole, pack dirt gently around it and move on to the next clump.

I have not lost one beet baby using this method and I practically double my yield.  Oh, and beets are a twofer in my garden – I also eat beet greens in salads.  Wait until the leaves are 3 to 4 inches high, then cut a couple off each beet plant.  The beets will keep growing and you’ll have some truly delicious greens for lunch or dinner.

Care & Feeding
Like I said, beets are easy peasy.

I have never fertilized my beets and they grow like champions.  It could be because I enrich my raised beds with a bit of compost every spring.  I do put a bit of mulch – straw – down around the plants once I divide and transplant them.  It helps hold moisture during the hotter, summer days.

Keep The Beets Coming
I plant in March, April, May then hold off until early August when I start putting in seeds, again.  I do that to avoid asking the beet seeds to germinate when the daytime temperature is above 80 degrees.  They don’t like it.  Plant in early August and within 55 to 70 days, you should have your next crop.

Nowadays there are so many varieties of beet to choose from — Early Wonder, Detroit Dark Red, and Red Ace.  You can even add some color to your beet dishes with the lovely striped Chioggia (which started me on my life of beet crime) or Burpee Golden and Albino White

No matter how you slice them…beets are a great addition to any garden.

By the way, one of my favorite resources when I am trying to get solid, basic growing information is colleges like Cornell, which posted a nice guide to growing beets.

Buy butter from grass-fed, organic cows and dig in to one of my favorite dishes.

If you want fast access to all my gardening tips and tricks, you will find them in my Kindle book, Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us.