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Weekly Farm Status Update 5/11/14 (and a great mother’s day gift)

A lot has been happening around the homestead this week. The garden is exploding. I’ll get to all of that in a moment. First, baby T gave us the most amazing Mother’s Day gift in the world: she took her first step! She’s been getting close to it for a while, and she’s tried all weekend, and finally she did it. She promptly fell down of course, but wow! What a day to start walking!

Ok, now for the farm stuff.

Our First Market Day

Laughing Bird Farm’s first farmer’s market was a success. Not a huge success, but a success nonetheless. We learned a lot and made about $100 which is nothing to sneeze at, especially given our distinct lack of product. Here’s some of the lessons we learned:

  • Signage and displays are key. We need to work on these before next month.
  • We need more product. The booth needs to look full.
  • The kids need to wait to come out until after it starts to cool off. (I know, this one should have been obvious.)
  • Disposable tablecloths do not work well for the kind of products we have. We’ll pick up some vinyl ones before next month.
  • Most important of all, we learned how NOT to pack fresh herbs. Not that we had that many to begin with, but I ruined them all by packaging them in plastic baggies. I thought they’d be okay despite the heat and humidity. Not. I’ll do some research into the best way to package them before next month.

I forgot to take pictures, unfortunately. We were just too busy. I’ll try to snap a few next month.

What’s growing in the garden

A little bit of everything! It’s really popping. The corn’s not in yet, but the plot is mostly ready, and the seeds will go in on Tuesday or Thursday of this week. Here’s a list of the current crops:

  • Lots of herbs including basil, sage, lemon balm, cilantro, parsley, thyme, and peppermint.
  • Potatoes (see pictures below)
  • Radishes
  • Pole Beans
  • Lima Beans

The potatoes are really growing fast. They were first hilled just  8 days ago. Take a look at this picture of one of them I took tonight.

Potatoes

Yep -they had to be hilled again. This time I used straw instead of dirt. I’ll see how it works. And one of them is starting to flower.

It won’t be long now!

The Orchard

Our fruit trees and berry bushes are mostly doing well, with the exception of the Pineapple Pear tree, which has never leafed out. I’m reluctantly calling it a loss. I’ll contact the nursery for a replacement sometime next month.

Check this out, though. I discovered tonight that our peach tree tried to set fruit this year. I knew it bloomed, but this was the first time I found a sign of fruit.

Peach

There were several of these, and since the tree is too young to bear, I pulled them all off.

What’s waiting to be transplanted

Quite a lot, actually.

  • Lots of herbs
  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers, both hot and sweet
  • Tomatillos
  • Eggplants
  • Swiss chard
  • Butternut Squash (a gift)
  • Zucchini (also a gift)

Chickens!

We’ve got 16 days until our chickens arrive. I guess I better get started on, ur that is finish, the coop. I’ll leave it to you to decide which one is the true statement. 😉

Until next time, happy gardening and homesteading. And happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there!

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Hail Spring!

Come in and be welcome!

Here’s some pictures for the first day of spring. Some of them are a little blurry, but I did my best.

Blackberry This blackberry has grown at least an inch in the past week!

Blueberry Swelling growth buds on one of the blueberries.

Pawpaw A new growth tip on one of the pawpaws.

Elderberry New growth on an elderberry.

I couldn’t get a decent, much less good, picture of it, but the cherry has a leaf bud opening up. I’ll try to get a picture of that one in the next few days as it finishes opening.

A St. Patrick’s Day Farm Update

St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal to me and my family. I’m Irish. Very, very Irish.

I’m so Irish we deliberately held my father’s funeral on St. Patrick’s Day. That’s not a bad joke; it’s the solid truth. This morning is similar to that one from so long ago -it’s a gray day with fog rolling over the fields and the chill of winter in the air. The mockingbirds call from the hedge, unwilling to leave the warmth and safety of their nests. It’s strange how two days so far apart -more than half my life! -can be so similar.

Now that I’ve depressed the two people who read this blog (sorry), I’m going to post a short update on the farm’s progress. All of the plants we’re going to start from seed for transplanting are or will be started by tomorrow; we’ll start the transplanting around the 15th of April, depending on the weather. A short list of our transplants include: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and a bunch of herbs. Our seed potatoes just came in and will be planted later this week.

I’m going to be tilling and preparing the garden beds on Thursday or Friday. We generally believe in no-till gardening, but tilling is the easiest way to start a new garden when you have to get rid of lots of sod. By this weekend, or Monday at the latest, I will have direct sown a bunch of early spring crops: peas, swiss chard, and so forth. I’m planting them late, but hopefully we’ll still have time to get a crop in.

Both pawpaws, both elderberries, all the blueberries, and one of the grape vines already have growth tips or swelling buds. Between the rain yesterday and the fog today, I haven’t been able to get any good pictures, but the sun is supposed to be back tomorrow.

And best of all -We should get our grower’s permit this week, maybe even today!

Planting Edibles

Our trees and bushes are here! Not only are they here, but they are in the ground. The package arrived late Thursday afternoon. Too late to plant them unfortunately, unless I did it with a flashlight. So I got to work early Friday morning. And a long day’s work it turned out to be.

I had planned to have all the holes dug before the plants arrived. Yeah, that didn’t happen. I had to finish digging the rest of the holes -I had 9 left -first thing. Then I went to the store for mulch and topsoil. The clock had almost struck noon before I ever planted anything.

I’m going to describe the process of planting fruit trees and berry bushes for those who don’t know. Don’t worry -there will be lots of pictures!

Step 1.) Choose what type of tree you want to get and select a variety that does well in your area.

You can buy trees and bushes either in containers or bare-root. Bare root trees are cheaper and have a wider selection; potted trees have a better survival rate. Make sure that any varieties you select do well in your area. Just because the tree is listed for your zone doesn’t mean it will work well in your specific region. If you are only planting one of a species, make certain it is self-pollinating or you won’t get any fruit. I also select varieties based on ripening time and disease resistance.

Your local nurseries will have container grown trees in the spring and fall. You’ll have to order bare root trees from a mail-order nursery. There are many fine mail-order nurseries, but I recommend beginner’s stick with those on the Top 5 list at Dave’s Garden.

Step 2.) Dig a hole at least as deep as the roots and at least twice as wide.

You don’t want to skimp on the size of the hole; it could be fatal to the tree or bush. Newly planted trees need loose soil to expand into. My holes always end up being far too big. Here’s a picture of one of the holes I dug for the blackberry bushes.

Hole

Step 3: Gently remove the plant from its wrappings and place it in the hole.

The crown of the plant should be at or above soil level once the hole is filled. Most bare root trees will have a paint mark to indicate planting depth. If all else fails, look for residual dirt on the trunk to see how deep it was planted in the nursery. Remember that it’s always better to plant a little too shallowly than too deeply.

If the hole is too deep, go ahead and backfill some of the dirt.

Tip: Exposure to air, especially wind, can be fatal to bare root trees. Keep their roots wrapped in plastic or newspaper right up until you go to plant them. Even a few minutes of exposure to high winds can dry out fine root hairs enough to kill the plant. To remove a container grown plant from its container, turn the container on its side at a downward facing angle and gently slide the plant out.

Our trees were a mixture of bareroot and container grown plants. I expected the berry bushes to all be bare root, so imagine my surprise when I opened the box containing the blackberry bushes and found this:

Blackberry Bushes

Hello gorgeous! Sure they were smaller than I expect, but I’ll trade a flat for size any day.

Spread the roots of bare root trees out in the hole. If a potted plant is root bound, gently tug at the bottom of the plug to loosen the roots, like so:

Roots

Step 4: Backfill the hole with soil.

Amending your native soil with topsoil is optional unless you have really poor soil. Do not replace your soil with topsoil; this will create a “flower-pot” effect that will eventually weaken or kill the plant. Aim for less than a 50/50 mix. If you choose to use topsoil, get good quality topsoil. It should look like this:

Topsoil

If you’re at the home improvement store and you’re trying to choose topsoil, the good stuff is usually around $2 for 0.75 cubic feet and the cheap stuff is about $1.50 for 2 cubic feet. Don’t skimp on the quality of your topsoil. If you need a lot, call your local farm supply store  and ask about a truckload.

Step 5: Water and Mulch

Water deeply and then spread a layer of mulch 2-3 inches thick around the newly planted tree or bush. Keep the mulch away from the trunk so the bark won’t rot.

Bushes

Newly planted blackberry bushes. That’s my flannel overshirt off to the side. I’m a real fashion plate!

Step 6: Stake and Guard if necessary

Most trees don’t need to be staked unless they’re really small or in areas with high winds. Guard the trees if rabbits or deer are a problem. You can make inexpensive guards out of a roll of window screening and some zip ties.

That’s it! Some more pictures:

Pawpaw One of the pawpaws. (The camera is at an angle, not the tree.)

One Pear One of the pears with rabbit guard.

Cherry A self-pollinating sweet cherry tree.

Everything is in the ground and alive right now. We’ll see how they do.

Trees!

And berry bushes and grape vines, oh my!

It’s official -our spring order of trees and other such goodies is on the way! It shipped last night and should be here on Thursday. Here’s a run down of what’s coming in:

-4 blueberry bushes

-6 blackberry bushes

-6 raspberry bushes

-3 grape vines

-2 elderberry bushes

-2 pear trees

-2 pawpaw trees

-2 cherry trees

These will join the peach tree and the plum tree we already have. Now I just have to finish digging the rest of the holes before Thursday. I’ve only got 9 to go. That’s not that many, right? Right?Oh well. At least it’s raining this morning. That will make things easier!

Pictures!

So, last week I promised you some pictures, and here they are. These aren’t the best pictures, because I’m not the world’s greatest photographer, and because I took them in a hurry last night before it started raining with little T in my arms and dinner on the stove.

So, this is the front of our house. It’s an old farmhouse, as I said. It was mostly built in the 1940s. I say “mostly” because the original owners built it in three stages, the last of which was the laundry room (on the far left). They finished the latter near the end of the 1950s. The homestead was 40 acres back then. The farmer who built it passed it down to his son, and we bought it from him. It had never been on the market before. It needs a bit of work, as you can see. Please ignore the couch on the front porch. A friend of Kelly’s mom just gave us a really nice new couch, and we haven’t been able to get rid of the old one yet.

House

Here’s a view looking towards the garage, with one of our vehicles in the foreground. As to why we’re not parking in the garage, well…not only have we not organized our stuff yet (after a mere six months!) but let’s just say getting a 1200 square foot garage/workshop is a lot like buying a truck.

The garage/workshop

The garage desperately needs to be pressure-washed. That’s on the list for this spring.

Here’s the fenced backyard for the dogs. The view beyond is our “field”, where the food forest and primary gardens will be. The orange flags mark the current and future locations of berry bushes and fruit trees. We’ve already planted three grape vines, four blueberry bushes, and two pears. More are arriving next week, and we hope to plant the rest in the fall.

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The next pictures I publish will be much better -promise!

Up next: Moving with a baby…and other signs of insanity.

Our Property

Laughing Bird Farm is our second property. Our first consisted of 10 acres of raw land we purchased in Tennessee several years ago. We were determined to build a house and make a go of it on that property, but we had to live in town for work in the meantime and could only get to the property on weekends. A two hour commute each way is far too long for practicality, and there were no decent jobs in the area. This proved to be infeasible, especially once it got close to time for little T’s arrival, so we sold the property and looked for something closer to town.

This necessitated a lot of trade-offs. Our property in Tennessee cost one-fourth of what we paid for our current land. Of course, it was raw land, two hours from the metro area, and didn’t have a house. Before we started our property hunt we sat down and made a list of the features we needed and wanted. Here’s a short list of the necessities: a house on at least an acre lost, a decent commute time to work, lots of usable gardening space, and no restrictions. Our wish list included lots of storage space, a fenced back yard for the dogs, and a workshop area.

None of this would have been hard to find if we had a larger budget. But we both have modest incomes, and we wanted to find a property where it would be possible to make the payments on one income. This was an absolute requirement of mine; I’m not willing to risk losing our land because we bit off a larger mortgage than we could chew. Our particular wants and our low budget gave our wonderful real estate agent a lot of headaches, but she stuck with us while we looked at property after property over a three month period. We had one deal fall through when the house failed inspection (to the tune of $50k+ of foundation work!) and another when we were outbid. Those properties didn’t work out because the one we purchased was meant to be. I’m not normally a believer in fate, but this worked out nicely.

We found the property late in July. Both of us obsessively checked the online listings several times a day, looking for anything new that might pop up. I had already checked the listings before I went to work, but I hadn’t been there an hour when Kelly called me. She sounded so excited I had a hard time understanding her at first. A new listing had just come onto the site –the posting time was about five minutes before she found it. It looked absolutely perfect and was actually under our budget cap. I called our agent right away and we both took off work early to see it, with our 6 week-old daughter in tow. We submitted our offer right away, at full asking price with only the home inspection as a condition, and waited nervously to hear whether or not it was accepted.

Some back and forth ensued, but the owner finally accepted our offer, and by that time two other couples had submitted offers and there were others lined up! It’s a good thing we jumped on it that morning.

So, about the property itself. Laughing Bird Farm is just over an acre. It’s a mini farm of course, but there’s lots you can do with a mini farm when you do intensive gardening and permaculture. The property is a rectangle running east and west. The east side of the property is bordered by a major road. The north side of the property is fenced off and on the other side sits an upscale subdivision. Other middle and upper class subdivisions are in the area, but our property is located in the county and is completely unrestricted.

The west and south sides of the property are totally enclosed by a thick hedge of hollies, hackberries, roses, and crabapples. Our house sits near the front of the property behind a small lawn. We have an old farmhouse, only 1300 square feet but enough for us. There are three bedrooms (though one is really small) and the house was built in three sections by the family who used to own our land and much of the surrounding land. It needs lots of updates but that’s okay by us. We’ll be doing most of them ourselves as time and funds become available.

Behind the house is a backyard and a garage/workshop that’s almost as big as the house at 1200 square feet. The yard wasn’t fenced when we closed on the house, so that’s the first thing we did. The rest of the acreage stretches out beyond the yard and garage and is perfect for gardening and a food forest.

Our first priorities this year are to get the food forest planted and start our annual garden and our mushroom patch. We have several trees and berry bushes on the way, including pawpaws, pears, blueberries, blackberries, and cherries.

Our adventures have just begun. I’ll post some pictures soon.

Welcome to Laughing Bird Farm!

Welcome, everyone! Laughing Bird Farm is a small homestead in North Alabama. We are in zone 7a, with hot, humid summers and (usually) mild winters. We are just beginning our farm and will design it using permaculture principles. We hope to have a working homestead that can provide at least one income in the next couple of years.

The farm was purchased in the last part of 2013, so homesteading efforts have thus far been minimal. We’ve managed to move in and empty out (most) of the boxes, but any major efforts will have to wait until the coming of spring. This has thus far been the most brutal winter I’ve ever experienced in the south and it’s been far too cold to work outside.

Who We Are

Kelly has a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) and will be creating the majority of the design, as well as taking care of the mushroom patches and teaching permaculture courses. Rebecca will do much of the gardening. Baby T is focusing on learning to crawl, and thus will not be helping with the farm anytime soon!

What We Hope to Do

We hope to get our farm up and running as fast as possible. We want to produce enough food from the land to be at least partially self-sufficient. We would also like to generate enough income for one of us to stay home and work the land full-time within a couple of years. In addition, we hope to demonstrate the potential permaculture holds as a viable solution to the many problems facing our society.

2014 Goals

Here are our primary goals for 2014:

  • Plant a large enough annual garden to help supply many of our family’s vegetable needs.
  • Plant at least 50% of our food forest. The food forest will contain a minimum of 15 trees and at least twice that many shrubs and vines.
  • Grow enough herbs to sell the excess in both fresh and dried form.
  • Start an oyster and a shiitake mushroom patch.

Our Challenges

The biggest challenges, as with most such ventures, are money and time. We have a small child and busy lives; that limits us on time. As for money, we are doing this solely out of our own resources, and since those resources are fairly modest, progress will likely be slower than we would like.

What We’ve Done Thus Far

Not much, as mentioned above. We’ve ordered all of our garden seeds and the first shipment of fruit trees and berry bushes. Most of the seeds are in; the trees and bushes should be in around the end of February. We already have a peach tree (Contender) and a plum tree (Methley) and these are varieties coming soon: Sweet Cherry (Starkrimson), Pawpaws (Mango and Sunflower), Raspberries (Anne and Caroline), Blackberries (Triple Crown), and Blueberries (Misty, Pink Lemonade, Blueray, and Sweetheart).

What This Blog Is For

I (Rebecca*) intend to use this blog as a record of our progress. It will be a diary of the creation and operation of our farm, and a way to interact with our customers and the public at large.

*I will usually be the one posting. Posts by Kelly will be denoted as such.