When we bought our first home I was thrilled with the opportunities to practice all the frugal, sustainable ways I had been studying and writing about. I could now become an expert!
So, we get the house, scrub, paint, plant our brains out. We plant the fruit and citrus trees. Check. Build the raised beds. Check. Get a free chicken coop. Check. Plant a garden. Check. Get the hens. Check. Oh what fun, what hopes.
Then things start going wrong. Some of the trees don’t make it and have to be replaced. The cement patio didn’t work for the beds so we move them, then the cat decides it’s a fancy and rather large cat box, we have to build fences, then the squirrel helps himself to my lettuce and spinach for a daily salad. The hens start out laying well and quickly stop. I have five hens and was lucky to get two eggs a day. I fed them buffets and misted them in the summer hourly. They have Hilton like service here. Then the aphids on my apple trees.
I have been pouring over the urban homesteading books but I have found that nothing like real life experience is the cure to all our mysteries.
I have learned that we planted the trees at the worst time. We planted and gardened late May and early June and then the weather was in the triple digits here. The best time to plant a tree is early spring or early fall so it has time to root a bit and adjust before harsh weather kicks in. I also watered with fish emulsion thinking I was giving them a boost. The best thing you can do is just plant the trees into plain, native dirt and no extras as it shocks them. You also don’t want to plant too deep but the hole should be double the width of the root ball. If the trees are struggling, wait through winter. In the summer all the trees energy goes to the leaves but when the leaves drop the energy goes to the roots and they get deeper and stronger. Sometimes a winter will change the fate of the tree and it will blossom and thrive come spring since it had a season to focus on its roots.
With gardens, I planted too late as well but now I have a winter garden on time. I learned that when the seeds are new water twice a day until they really sprout. I also learned that some seeds do best if you just hand toss them onto the bed and not bury in rows. Mostly lettuces and greens seem to like that. I also learned that the straw from the chicken coop with the hen’s urine and poop on it is kryptonite to the squirrels. They won’t come near my new greens now with the coop straw all over. Also, we are in a hot agricultural area and I put some of my beds behind the detached garage. The greens and lettuce like more shade. I moved my strawberries into a raised bed under my laundry room and it’s shadier there so they are thriving.
Straw and mulch are the answer to protecting the seedlings and plants, keeping in moisture, watering less, and they break down to add to the soil in great ways. The Vegan Athlete swears by mulch and uses tons of it in his desert Arizona gardens. He’s worth watching. He has 200 fruit trees and 20 raised beds in Arizona and it all is thriving.
Now, as for my hens. I have discovered that one of them is eating the eggs (I thought). They are getting plenty of calcium as I add Oyster shells to their feed and their feed is 16% protein which is more than enough (I thought). More than that and their little chicken kidneys have to work over time. We have taken to checking the coop all day. They lay less seasonally and when molting, if it’s extreme heat or cold. We had tried to leave them be to feel safe in laying but now we check from sunrise to before bed because of this egg eater. They don’t mind. We also purchased fake eggs and put them in the laying boxes because we noticed they would only use one box. Now they use both. The other thing with hens is electrolytes. I have some Rooster Booster and put it in their water to help them when they seem a bit wilty. I have rescue hens from a factory farm and they were in pretty bad shape. I put electrolytes in the water daily and fed them all sorts of greens and scraps along with crumble and they have filled out and are looking great…except one who is still scraggly but her poop is healthier so we will see how she fairs over the year.
Since writing this blog I have discovered that I accused my hens wrongly and they suffer from “shell-less egg”. They form their eggshells at night and if disturbed they don’t form. Or they are ill or suffering from egg drop syndrom…or calcium deficiency. I have since upped the oyster shell considerably and I am getting 4 eggs a day! There would be 5 eggs but one of the girls is still having issues. Probably the scraggly one but I have faith she will improve. They have had to get used to a neighborhood with sirens and dogs at night so once they settle in I’ll get my 5 eggs. Although, now it’s winter coming.
I belong to a couple groups so when I have questions I have a place to ask and the help is wonderful and abundant. So many people out there have years of experience and love sharing and helping. BackyardChicken.com and TheEasyGarden.com are great places to join and get support and help.
I have read from other urban farmers that the first year is just practice and to make all those mistakes. It takes a few years before you start to have some real success. I see that now. It’s frustrating when you have this fantasy of plopping the seeds in and collecting the hens and having a bursting pantry in no time. Doesn’t happen that way for all of us. I have much to learn but when things go wrong I repeat, “first year, just a test run, just practicing right now.”
Here is a little tour on Youtube.