Posts Tagged Green & Eco Friendly

The Basics of Homestead Gardens (For Non-Gardeners)

Some of us were born with a natural green thumb. Others of us…well, we aren’t so lucky. That said, one of the draws of homesteading and tiny house living is learning to live off the land. To grow your own food supply, it’s necessary to first learn the basic requirements of planting homestead gardens.

The Basics of Homestead Gardens | a patch of vegetables in a garden

As with most suggestions on this blog, I’m a big advocate of baby steps. Learn to cultivate a small garden the first year, don’t stress too much about it and see what happens. Then the next year you might want to tackle a bigger project. Don’t expect to live off your garden right away, especially if you’re a novice, even experienced gardeners have bad years.

Lean the basics of planning a garden, setting up your plot and growing a few veggies. Research what plants work best in your area. Understand the soil you’re working with and which plants compliment each other (as I’ll explain).

So, if you’re interested in starting to grow your own food this year, here are the basics of homestead gardening for beginners.

1. Research the Requirements of Homestead Gardens

There are several factors to consider when you plan your garden set up and it goes beyond which vegetables you like to eat. Most of us know plants require the basics:

  • Water
  • Oxygen
  • Sunlight
  • Nutrients

It sounds rudimentary, but many first-time gardeners make mistakes by forgetting these simple four requirements. I’ve seen new gardeners attempt to grow plants in the wrong climate or in a shady spot, so plants don’t get their preferred amount of hot/cold or sunlight. Or first-time gardeners don’t know that plants require good soil, assuming they can plant in any patch of dirt. Planting seeds too close together can cause plants to fight for enough sun. There are also plants with competing nutrient requirements that steal from each other if planted together in a smaller space or container (more on companion planting under #4).

Raised garden bed with plants and herbs in soil.

If all this sounds complex, yes, it can be. Ask any farmer and chances are he or she will tell you hours are spent planning for their gardens. To yield enough food for even one person’s needs requires a lot of foresight and effort. Hobby gardeners generally plant their favorite crops to enjoy and for the pleasure of gardening itself, rather than survival. Homestead gardens that serve as a food supply, will require more learning and effort. Again, start small and remember: this is a journey, not a destination. You want to start by planning a garden you can keep up with.

Of course, it’s certainly possible to plant a big garden that will give you many vegetables to enjoy. Start with vegetables recommended for your particular region. Take into consideration the days to maturity and compare it to your growing season. There are many growth charts, like this one from Iowa State University to show you the length of time required for each plant.  Also look up your local “extension” which is a government office that helps people start gardens or farms. They can assist you with troubleshooting issues, conducting soil tests and understanding some common challenges in your area. Extension offices are in each state, in most mid-to-large sized cities and their services are often free to the public.

Compare the growing dates to the plant hardiness zone maps and heat zone maps for your homestead. This will tell you exactly what you should expect in terms of the growing season and which plants will thrive. It will also help you know when to plant each variety of vegetables you hope to grow.

seeds for the garden

It’s hard to say how many plants you should plan for. Generally, beginning gardeners may want to experiment with a variety of seeds and seedlings to see what flourishes and what struggles in your garden plot. As you identify which plants do well, focus on growing those in the future (although it may vary from year to year).  Check out my post on the top 5 vegetables for beginning gardeners, for great ideas to start.

2. Move Beyond Container Gardening (If Possible)

Container gardening seems to go hand-in-hand with small spaces, but from my experience container gardening is challenging because the plants end up pot-bound and their growth is limited. Of course, if container gardening is your only option, it’s better than nothing. But my recommendation is to plant in the ground or raised bed whenever possible.

aquaponics small space gardening

There are many alternatives to container gardening like vertical gardens and hydroponic setups that still work in a small space or if you don’t have much planting space on your land, but I find these to be more trouble than they’re worth. My best recommendation for people with limited space is to join a community garden. These shared-spaces give people a chance to contribute to a garden even if they don’t have room on their property, you get the benefit of more space as well as advice and help from experienced gardeners. Best of all, community gardens are often very affordable.

Transplanting plants from container to ground with seeds.

New gardeners may want to start with seedlings rather than seeds. Eventually, if you prefer to use heirloom varietals you can start saving up your own seeds, but when you’re beginning it helps to have a head start. Seedlings are easily transferred from peat pots right into the ground (or your larger container). If you wish to start your own seeds indoors, you need to harden off the sprouts first before planting them. This gives them a chance to get used to life outdoors, no matter what type of container (or plot) they ultimately end up in.  My suggestion is to wait at least a few years before you add in trying to start your own plants indoors as seedlings. Growing from seed is an art form; keep it simple at first and buy seedlings.

3. Set Up Your Soil for Success

A big factor in the success of your homestead garden is the soil. No matter how large the container, raised bed, or piece of land, the mix of soil is critical for your plants. In short, your soil should have three components: vermiculite, compost, and peat moss. These items are easily purchased at a big box store or in truckloads from a local supplier.

in bed composting

Additionally, you may wish to add in compost from your own food and yard scraps. If you own a composter, you may be surprised at how quickly organic matter breaks down as compost. This nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium-rich compound feeds your plants and helps them grow. I also suggest you include a fertilizer such as bone meal or blood meal. If you prefer to avoid animal sourced fertilizer, use seaweed meal.

If you start with good soil, a soil test isn’t always necessary, but it’s always best practice. After the first year or two, if you feel your plants are lacking in size or failing to thrive in the soil combination you’ve selected, get the soil tested. Soil tests are usually obtained through your state university’s cooperation extension service (CSREES) and are typically inexpensive. You can also purchase a soil testing kit at a home improvement store, but the CSREES test is more comprehensive.

4. Use Companion Planting to Your Advantage

Companion planting is an age-old practice of planting certain vegetables together that support and complement each other. Larger plants might provide shade for shorter plants, which prefer partial sun. Tall plants can be used a trellis for vining plants. Low groundcover plants will block weeds from coming in. Some plants even draw nutrients from deep in the soil to make them available to other plants with shallow roots. These companion plants may attract beneficial insects, add nitrogen to the soil and even give off scents to detract predators.

hornworms on tomatoes in garden

Tomatoes, for example, don’t play well with brassica vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli. They also attract pests who love eggplants and peppers, so avoid planting those nightshades together. Surrounding your tomato plants with marigolds, garlic or basil repels parasitic nematodes and hornworms.

Companion planting is somewhat nuanced, but there are many companion vegetable chats and guides available to help you understand crop rotation and learn which plants complement each other. As you’re planning your garden, take advantage of companion planting to really help your plants flourish.

5. Choose High-Yield Plants

Select plants that give a high-yield crop. I’ve found herbs and lettuce are continuously harvested all season and offer a lot of bang for your buck. On the other hand, if you have a small space, one pea plant probably won’t give you more than a serving of peas (if that).

Zucchini and summer squash are two types of squash to grow in a garden

Zucchini and summer squash are two notoriously high-yield plants great for beginning homestead gardeners who want enough vegetables to harvest and enjoy for the season. Lettuce and leafy greens are also great starters. Tomatoes and pepper plants may result in a high yield too, depending on your area.

Other plants called perennials come back year after year, like berry bushes and asparagus, take time to establish and may not yield much if anything for the first few years. If you want these plants as part of your garden in the long-term, plan ahead and plant a few each year, but give yourself plenty of payoff plants to help you stay motivated. Find out what plants really thrive in your particular region and focus your efforts there.

6. Plan Your Watering and Irrigation System

Watering and irrigation is a high concern in certain areas. I always try to have a setup because life gets busy, so having your system on a timer keep plants alive and makes life easier. Even small container gardens dry out quickly during dry spells. Fortunately, plants do quite well with recycled grey water (as long as it doesn’t contain soap). Save your extra water from showering and household use, to keep your garden hydrated.

Rain barrel with plants and a hose attachment.

Investing in or making a rain barrel will give you a nice supply of water if a water hook up and a hose isn’t possible. Pour your extra household greywater in your barrel as well if the water gets low. Many rain barrels feature a hose attachment, making it simple to water your garden. Some water municipalities even offer rain barrels at a discounted rate to promote water conservation.

No matter what, be frugal in your water usage—soaker hoses or drip tape help you target only the plants (and not the surrounding dirt). Remember you only need to water the roots of your plants. Water on the leaves of plants will even damage younger plants and cause them to become susceptible to fungus and mildew. Keep the water at the root.

Mulching is key when it comes to maintaining a garden with less water. Mulch holds moisture in the soil and helps keep the water from evaporating. You can create inexpensive (or free) mulch from wood chips, hay, grass clippings and leaves.

7. Weed & Maintain Your Garden Regularly

Homestead gardens require plenty of maintenance, just like any other type of garden. Regular weeding is important. Weeds will steal nutrients from your vegetables, stunt growth, crowd them out and create shade. So, while you may feel there’s no aesthetic reason to pull weeds, it still needs to be done.

If you choose to garden organically, it means avoiding pesticides and other chemicals. Use natural remedies and hand removal of slugs, bugs, and pests. Plucking them off into soapy water is one method. Beer traps and eggshells also work well for slugs and worms.

Chickens roaming in garden and tall grasses.

Of course, some organic gardeners choose to rely on bigger predators to control smaller pests. Chickens, ducks and even garter snakes will help you control the slug and worm population. Attracting beneficial insects such as hoverflies, ladybeetles and praying mantis help control aphids and pests. Certain beneficial insects are also available for order and through garden suppliers.

As for larger pests, fencing and even chicken wire will keep digging, burrowing and stealing to a minimum. Keep brush, stone and wood piles cleaned up so their natural habitat is nowhere to be found. Rabbits and voles are also averse to garlic and hot pepper, so spraying plants with these organic deterrents may also help.

8. Note What Grew (and What Didn’t)

When your garden is finished for the season, it’s important to note what took off and what didn’t. Homestead gardens require careful planning over the course of several years. There’s a lot of trial and error involved, so keeping notes will help you remember what to change from one year to the next.

There are certain crops that succeed in a specific garden patch one year and then fail the next. Often this is because they drain the soil of nutrients (broccoli is a common offender), so changing the planting location and rows in your garden will help you avoid issues down the road. Draw a map of where each item was planted and keep any other notes like pests you saw, drainage or sunlight issues, mildew or disease.

take notes about what worked in your garden

Once you’ve got a year or two of gardening under your belt, you’ll feel more and more confident to plant new plants and expand. If there’s a crop you love to grow, or one that does particularly well on your land, that veggie may even become a source of side income or trade.

Talk to other gardeners in your area and farmers. Learn what common problems they face with crops, what disease and concerns are prevalent in your area and what treatment they recommend. As you become more comfortable with maintaining your homestead garden, you may even wish to volunteer at a local organic farm. This will give you a chance to learn from agricultural experts and see how to garden on a larger scale.

I must admit, gardening becomes addictive. Once you experience success with your first harvest you’ll be well on your way to an entire farm. Take steps today to start your own homestead garden and enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Your turn:

  • What are your favorite tips for gardening success?
  • What are you going to grow this year?

 

5 Easiest Vegetables To Grow For Beginner Gardeners

I’ve been there, the seed catalogues come in January and you get all excited about what to grow this year in your garden.  It can be hard to figure out where to start, so I thought I’d share my recommendations on five easy vegetables to grow in your garden in your first year.  The biggest mistake new gardeners make is not starting small:  They have too big of a garden, they try to grow too many things, and in the end they get burnt out.

what to grow for begginers gardening

My advice after teaching people how to start gardening for years is to only start with a few things.  Three to five types of vegetables in a single variety of each.  This will give you a really good foundation to start your gardening journey.

Grow What You Eat

grow the vegies that you like to eat basketA very common this that I see newbie gardeners do is get excited by what they could grow, but they may not really like things or they try new stuff before they find out if they really like them.  If you were to look in your kitchen right now, what vegetables are you purchasing from the store?  Many of those could be good contenders for your first year’s short list.

There will be some things that you buy that aren’t in season or are more complicated to grow, but many of what most people like will be on our list below.  So consider what you eat, choose the easier ones to grow and let’s stack the deck in our favor!

Get Your Garden Prepared

It’s important to not just think about the vegetables that you’re going to grow, but to also think about growing good soil.  Have good soil is really what makes a garden go from okay to amazing, so don’t skimp on this step.  If you have never gardened before, check out our post on how to prepare your soil for a vegetable garden.

From Seeds Or From Seedlings

There are some things that do really well from seeds and some things that starting with a seedling is the way to go for first time gardeners.  Seedlings are simply very young plants that have been started ahead of time indoors, that you later transfer outdoors into your garden.

seedlingsIt can be tempting in your first year or two to in addition of starting a garden to also raising seedlings indoors, but my advice is to avoid this.  Your first few years to learn gardening is a lot, to add learning to start seeds into seedlings is too much and you’ll just burn out.

 

Below I’ll mention which ones I’d start from seed and which ones I’d start from seedlings.

What Plants To Start With?

Here are a few of my favorite plants to start with.  These are pretty easy, widely available and you can find lots of knowledge from local people and online. Start with three to five of these in a single variety.  It will be tempting to choose a bunch of types of vegitables and a few varieties of each, but doing so will bring complexity, stress and a greater chance of failure.  We don’t want that!

Zucchini

zucchnis from gardenThere is an old joke that I like to tell.  In the city people lock their doors so people don’t steal their stuff, in the country they lock their cars so someone doesn’t leave them a bag of zucchini and squash in their front seat.  What is really great about this plant is that it grows really fast, its very simple and it produces a ton of vegetables.

I’d suggest starting out with three plants of zucchini if you have a family.  There will come a point where you can’t eat anymore (trust me), at that point I usually just pull the plants out of my garden and compost them. For your first year I’d start these from seedlings, they’re easy to find, cheap and makes it easy to start.

One piece of advice that I give is I’ve found that there comes a point when I start to see squash bugs on my plants.  When I see more than 2 or 3 of them on a plant, I pull that plant right then and there.  New gardeners will often be hesitant to prune or pull out plants, you can’t be afraid to.  Squash bugs are very difficult to combat, every trick I’ve read online doesn’t do anything for my garden.  So I plant a few extra than I need and then just pull the plants as soon as I see the bugs and am content with whatever squash I got to that point, usually I’m sick of it by then anyways!

Tomatoes

These are a favorite for most people and a garden tomato can’t be beat.  I would absolutely use seedlings for tomatoes.  The two varieties I suggest are “Early Girls” or “Roma”.  If you have short growing season I’d suggest Early Girls because they produce pretty quickly and earlier than most tomatoes.

tomatoes just picked

A few notes about tomatoes:  If you find that you are getting a lot of flowers, but they’re not really translating into tomatoes it’s often because they aren’t pollinating well enough.  This could be because they’re aren’t enough natural pollinators like bees or Humidity is binding up the pollen.  Tomatoes will often stop fruiting when it gets really hot, then start back up when summer temperatures start to wind down.

If you live in a very hot and humid area and Early Girls aren’t working for you, consider the variety “Pink Brandywine”.  They produce great tomatoes that are huge and tend to fair a bit better in higher heat.

Finally know that you will need to support the tomatoes in some manner.  This could be a cage, it could be a be a steak or string.  My favorite way to stake these is get a 6 foot pole that is durable metal coated in plastic and then use the rolls of twist ties you can buy at the store.  I find other options just don’t hold up over the years or are too cumbersome.

Radishes

I’ll be the first to say these aren’t my personal favorite, but they are super easy to grow and they open up the soil some as they grow.  I’ll plant these for the chickens to peck out of the dirt and for friends who like them.  Radishes take between 14 and 21 days to grow full which is very fast and they are a cooler weather crop so early spring or fall is a great time for these.

radishes from garden

These are very easy to grow from seeds and they’re very cheap to buy a lot of seeds.  The seeds are very small, so what I will do is prep my bed nice and even, then just scratch the surface a little bit with the back of a garden rake.  The rule of thumb for seed depth is 3 times the length of the longest dimension of the seed.

In the case of radishes this means you barley cover them if at all, just make sure you keep them nice and moist with a fine mist (not a spray).  It can be easy for these to dry out, but since we plant in the cooler parts of the year it’s a little easier.  For spacing I follow the same approach I use with lettuce, so read below to find out how I do it.

Lettuce

There are a million varieties of lettuce so it can get overwhelming.  Ask around locally to see if people have favorites that do well in your area.  I often just get a lettuce seed mix which is several kinds all mixed together.   You loosely broadcast the seeds over a smoothed and prepared bed and lightly water.

leafy greens

Since we are starting from seeds, we need to know how to space them so they’re not so close that they crowd the others, but not too far that we allow for weeds or wasted space.  For lettuce I typically just shake the seeds out over the entire bed as evenly as I can, then when they start to grow up to about 2 inches, I go in and pluck out some of them to make enough space.  I typically go for about four inches apart from other plants, but I also try to choose the strongest ones.  It doesn’t have to be perfect!

Lettuce is grown in cooler weather, so spring or fall, the heat of the summer is often too much for most varieties, but there are some options for those who live in hot climates.  From seeding to harvest is about 3 weeks and you often can cut the leaves right above the soil about an inch and the lettuce will grow back another two times or so.

Beans

green beansThe two main types are “bush” or “pole” beans, the only difference really is that the pole beans need something to climb.  I often just stick with bush beans because it’s less poles and structures I have to deal with. These are a great plant to start out with in your first garden.

Beans are easily started from seed and are a larger seed.  Because we know the rule of thumb: plant three times the longest part of the seed, they typically get buried about an inch or so below the soil.  I usually take my rake and with the handle side make a little divot, drop the seeds about 6 inches apart and then lightly brush the soil of the trough back over the seeds.  Again, we don’t need to get out our ruler here!

So those are my recommendations on how to start a garden the easy way, to stack the deck in your favor and keep it all fun.  In the comments let me know what you’re going to try.

Your Turn!

  • What’s on your list to plant this year?
  • What tips do you have for first time gardeners?

 

How To Prepare Soil For Vegetable Gardens

Having taught people to garden for years, many people want to know how to prepare their soil so they can start a vegetable garden.  If you talk to people who have been growing for years, you’ll notice they spend a lot of time building the soil in their garden beds.

how-to-prepare-soil-vegetable-gardens

 

For first time gardeners I always recommend to start small and because each patch of dirt is different, I recommend starting with a raised beds, which is nothing more than building a bed of soil on top of the ground instead of in it.  You can add sides made out of wood, edging or other materials as a side wall, but it isn’t required, mounded dirt works just as well if you’re on a budget.

Building A Raised Bed Frame

For most people they want to have the tidy look of a wooden frame and it can be done quickly for little money.  Start with three 2×6’s and cut one of them in half.  This will form the four sides of the bed and create a bed that is 4 feet wide by 8 feet long.

raised bed garden

This is an ideal size because it minimizes the number of cuts (pro tip: big box stores will cut it for free for you) and at four feet, you can reach to the middle from either side without having to stretch too much.  A few screws will make a solid frame for you to fill in the dirt with.

Turn The Soil Below

turn soil with pitchforkEven though we are going to build a bed above the ground, we want to break up the soil below it so that our plant’s roots have an easier time of penetrating the ground as they grow.  Ideally you would shovel off the top layer if it is grass, but I’ve done it both ways.  Removing the grass below will help reduce weeds coming up later, so it’s often worth the effort.

If the soil is pretty bare, what I’ll do is rake the top then go buy a gallon jug of white vinegar to douse the little bits of weeds or grass with the vinegar to kill a few days before I build my bed.  White vinegar will work well to kill the weeds in spot treatments, but if you have more than 10% coverage, I’d just scrape the top off completely.

The last part is take a “digging fork” and just break up the top few inches of soil, it can be pretty chunky because we’re going to cover it all with our soil bed mix soon anyway.  Don’t get too tied up in making it perfect, this is a really a rough pass that we do quickly and move on.

Mixing The Perfect Soil To Grow In

First off, there are many different options here and if you ask 100 people you’ll get 101 recommendations.  So understand that if someone uses something different, that’s fine.  For most people just starting out I try to make it really simple and we can get into more of the nuances later.  So use this mix to start and in a few years, start to try different things.  We want to get you to gardening as quickly as we can and if you get caught up in what mix is the best, you’ll never actually start gardening.

raised bed soil mixture for good growing a garden

So I use a mix of compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. Typically I buy for a single 4 foot by 8 foot bed that’s around 6 inches deep the following:

  • 10 bags of compost (one cubic foot size bags)
  • 1 bale of compressed peat moss (three cubic feet size)
  • 1 bag of vermiculite (4 cubic foot sized bags).
  • 1 small bag of Bone Meal
  • 1 small bag of Blood Meal

If you don’t know what these are, just print this post off and bring it with you to any big box store, they’ll know exactly what you need from this list.  If the employee doesn’t know these items, it’s best to find someone else because these are gardening 101 supplies.

Compost

mushroom compsting mixFor compost you’ll find a lot of different options, my favorite is “mushroom compost” which you can find bags at any big box hardware store.  A close second is “Black Kow” compost.  I’ll often grab a few of each to make up my 10 bags for my bed.

If you can’t find these specific ones, it really isn’t a big deal, use whatever compost you can find at your local store or garden center.  Compost provides a lot of nutrients to your plants and serves as the base for seeds to root into.

Vermiculite

bag of vermiculiteVermiculite is essentially rock dust crushed up, it provides a lot of minerals for your plants, but it’s main function is to act like a sponge for water.  Be sure not to get confused with perlite, it’s not the same.  This one might take some calling around to find, if there is a local gardening group they might have some good leads.

I will also add a note here that if you start searching around about vermiculite, you’ll inevitably run into an old timer that will make the point about asbestos in vermiculite.  This is something that we had to worry about 40 years ago, but today there is no source allowed in the USA or Canada that doesn’t carefully screen and test for this.  The myth still persists today, but you should have zero concerns because the industry has long made changes to prevent this.

Often garden centers or seed/farm supply places carry it.  I’ve even seen it in small bags at your big box hardware stores.  If you can’t find it consider purchasing a few bags off of Amazon, while it’s a bit more expensive locally, you can buy a few of these bags of vermiculite and be good for a 4×8 bed.

Peat Moss

package of peat moss or spagnum mossThe last part of the soil mix.  This fluffs up the soil, allows for good oxygen infiltration and also acts like a sponge to hold in moisture until plants need it.  This can be found anywhere and they type or brand doesn’t matter.  The only thing I’ll suggest is make sure you get it from the soils section where you’d find your bags of compost or near the bags of mulch section.  Sometimes they sell small bags that are meant for growing orchids, these are often expensive, but the ones in the bagged compost section is usually sold “compressed” for very cheap ($10-$20 for 3 cubic feet compressed).

A common question that comes up around peat moss are concerns about if peat moss is sustainable.  It is true that 10 years ago peat moss was harvested from natural wet lands, but today it is done in a manner that is regenerative.  If you are still concerned, consider sourcing coconut coir which is a material similar to peat moss but made from the waste product of coconut husks.  In the end, I suggest you don’t get too caught up in your first year or so, just get your first year under your belt and then work on improving in later years.

Bone And Blood Meal

I prefer to use bone meal and blood meal, but there are many options.  Obviously from their names, they are a animal sourced product.  Those wanting a non-animal source can try seaweed meal or fertilize, you can buy seaweed fertilizer here.  Bone and blood meal are organic sources of the major nutrient (NPK: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium).

bone meal and blood meal in bags

Since we are starting out with such good ingredients, we don’t need much of these.  If we were starting with the soil in ground, there may be need for more as directed from a soil test, but since we are building our own soil we don’t need a soil test for our first year or two.  I start out with one large handful of each, mixed evenly across the whole 4×8 raised bed.

Mixing It All Together

Some people will use a tarp to mix the soil together, I just skip that and dump everything in a pile in the framed bed, then mix with my hands or a shovel.  If you choose compost that is moist, but not sopping wet it will mix easier.  Sometimes this means pulling off the top few bags at the garden supply place so you get to a lower layer of bags that haven’t soaked up any recent rain.

Here is my basic approach:

  • Take your peat moss bale and place it in the bed
  • With a shovel stab the plastic in a line to break open the bale
  • Turn it over to dump the peat on the ground and remove the plastic
  • Shake out half your vermiculite on top of the peat moss, set the rest aside
  • Grab one large handful each of bone meal and blood meal, sprinkle across the bed
  • Place a bag of compost in the bed, stab with shovel to dump on the pile
  • Repeat with compost about half your bags
  • Using the shovel and hands, mix it all up until it’s well mixed
  • Add remaining materials and mix it all up
  • smooth out the top and give the soil a brief water

How To Water Your Garden

You want to water it a few days before you plant if you can, this will let all the water to absorb into the peat moss and vermiculite.  Water for a count of five and then stop.  Again, counting to five, if the water fully absorbs into the soil so there is no sheen on the dirt from the water, water again for a count of five. repeat counting to five until the water doesn’t absorb all the way in five seconds.  This is a good indicator that the soil is nicely saturated with moisture, but not soaking.

how to water your garden and vegitables

In the end building your soil will set you up for success for years to come.  Following this formula and starting small, you will have a better drastically easier time because we’re not trying to fix our existing soil or battle weeds.  Start with one 4×8 bed, then next year go a little bigger.  The number one thing I see is new gardeners burning out their first year because they took on too big of a garden.

Your Turn!

  • What are your garden plans this year?
  • What tips have you learned?

How To Build A Chicken Coop

When you’re starting out with chickens you need to have a place to lock them up at night.  Building a chicken coop will be one of the first thing you need to do before you order your chicks or pick up some pullets (young hens).  I love how chickens just naturally gravitate to their little home when the sun starts to go down, roosting inside all on their own.

how to build a chicken coop for your chickens

The coop is an important part of your plan to keep your birds safe from predators that lurk in the night.  So we want it to be a sturdy structure that keeps the bad things out, the chickens in, provides a place for them to nest and lay their eggs.  First a few bits of terminology so you can get caught up to speed if you’re new.

  • Roost: a bar that chickens sit on and sleep on at night
  • Run: the fenced in area that chickens walk around during the day
  • Nesting Box: a separate area where hens sit to lay eggs in
  • Hardware Cloth: metal mesh that has very small openings
  • Bedding: saw dust, wood chips, hay or saw

So those are some of the basic terminology, now let’s get into some of the details.

The Coop

my chickens in my gardenYou can build the coop out of whatever building materials you have on hand or repurpose shelters to suit your needs.  When I built my coop I just went and bought a few sheets of plywood, created a box and sealed the entire inside.  Whatever you build it out of, the coop needs to be about 2 square feet of floor space for each chicken you have.  Much more than 2-3 feet per bird assuming they have more room to range during the day doesn’t do much because they all like to pile on a roost and cuddle up with each other anyway.

Height wise I usually build the coop so that I can easily clean it and room for at least 2 feet above the upper most roost.  If I have a lot of chickens I’ll make sure whatever it is, I can stand up straight if I need to go inside.

For the floors of my coop the biggest piece of advice is to make the inside as easy to clean as possible, really think ahead on this part.   I design mine so all the corners inside are not 90 degrees and no little nooks.  To do this I build my coop, then lay in a 2×2 cut at an angle so when I lay it in with glue all my corners are 45 degrees, which is much easier to clean.

Once I have my coop inside done I always sealed with a super heavy polyurethane. I coat every surface several times, making sure to soak it into the corners.  I put several layers on all surfaces then let it dry.  Next I focus on adding more layers to floor and the first foot of the walls.  You want a super thick layer of poly covering every inch of your floor and sealing every crevice and seam.

I let the whole thing dry and off gas for at least a few weeks.  If you build your coop before you even order your chicks, you’ll have a lot of time for all the fumes to escape by the time the chicks are grown up and ready to be put in the coop.

Roost Bars

chicken on roost in coopA roost is just a bar that chickens like to sit on, usually about a foot or so off the floor of the coop or ground.  I’ve had chickens that all piled onto a single bar leaving several empty and then I’ve had others that didn’t use them at all.  I usually add them because it seems like most chickens like to roost because it makes them feel a little safer.  The top most roost is often taken up by the alpha hen and the rooster if you have one, but some flocks don’t get too tied up in pecking order.

The roost bars can be branches cut from your woods or a 2×4.  You want your roost to be about 2 inches wide and not metal if you can help it.  You want a flat level surface around 2 inches wide because chickens like to sleep flat footed.  They can grip if they need to though.

Ventilation

Many first time coop builders forget that coops need to breath, even if you live in very cold climates.  This is because their droppings put off a lot of moisture and ammonia, so you want a way for that to vent well.  You want to make sure that there is at least some ventilation, but make sure it hardware cloth over it so predators can’t get in. The rule of thumb is around 1 square foot of ventilation per 10 square feet of floor space in the coop.

Nesting Boxes

You want one nesting box for every 3-4 hens you have.  All a nesting box needs to be is a small more enclosed area roughly 1 cubic foot in size with some hay on the bottom.  I’ve done everything from milk crates to 5 gallon buckets on their side.  Just make sure you can easily get into the nesting box to grab the eggs as they are laid and they you can clean them easily.

Make sure you can see well into your nesting boxes because sometimes you find things other than hens in them.  Here is a black snake that snuck into my nesting box.  The joke was on him though, that egg was a plastic egg that we were using to teach the hens to use the nesting box.

snake in nesting box

A Chicken Door

This door only has to be about a single square foot, maybe a foot and a half tall so that a single chicken can come and go into the coop.  The door should be able to be closed up tight at night with a lock that raccoons or other critters can open.  Some people build in a sliding door that operates on a motor with a special sensor that closes when the sun goes down.

golden comet chicken

When I did my permanent coop I had it so the chicken door opened directly into a fenced in chicken run.  The run was covered too and the whole thing tied into the coop itself so that I didn’t have to be there each night to lock the door.  Even if you have your coop in a protected run like I did, its still good to have a door because sometimes you want to shut them up in coop for you to clean things or if a predator is spotted.

A Light

Many people put lights for some heat in the colder months.  Unless you are in a very cold part of the world, I wouldn’t suggest this.  Experience has shown me that if you put a light in a coop and then one night it gets broken or burns out, you’ll end up loosing all your chickens.  I live in North Carolina and for many parts of the US I wouldn’t worry about it.  For colder parts of the US, I’d just build a bigger coop so you can keep them inside for a week if you have to when it’s super cold.  Chickens are pretty hearty.

lights in a coop

The last parts of a coop are your nesting boxes for the chickens to lay their eggs in (usually one box per 3-4 birds) and some sort of bedding to catch droppings from.  Chickens put out a lot of droppings and they tend to concentrate under the roost bars.  However you plan to handle droppings, make it bomb proof because it can get messy quickly and if you build your coop to easily clean out, you can make your life a lot easier.

Chicken Tractors

Many people who want to get into chickens want to try a mobile chicken tractor, which is basically a coop with no bottom that you move to fresh grass every few days.  I’ve done both a fixed coop and chicken tractors and I think chicken tractors are my favorite because it cuts down on the cleaning (no floors, the chickens just poop on the grass) and it reduces the amount of feed I need to buy.

Here is my old chicken tractor:

chicken tractor

There are a few things you need to consider if you decide to go the chicken tractor.  Whatever coop you design it should be able to be moved easily by the smallest person in your household, it makes it difficult if only some of the people can actually move it each day.  As you can see above there are wheels on this tractor, I later switched them to larger wheels because some of the bumps and lumps in the grass would catch the edge of the coop or the wheels.

Consider where you’re going to store feed and how you’ll get water to them.  Where is the closet storage spot?  Where is the closet spigot and will your hose reach to the far corner of the yard?hens and a rooster

Finally make sure you have enough room, if you have more than a few chickens you’ll need to move that coop most days so that the chickens do remove all the vegetation in that one spot to the point that it can’t bounce back.  You want the grass to get roughed up a bit, but no more.  This will let the grass bounce back and grow stronger.  Having enough space is easier in the summer months because things grow so quickly, but in the winter you may find that a spot where the chickens were takes 30-60 days to heal.

Waters

There are three main types of water devices for chickens: Bell, nipple and standard waterer/fountain.  Larger operations tend to use the bell style, I don’t have much experience with those.  The older style of waterer or fountains work pretty well, but I’ve found they get dirty pretty easily.  That leaves my favorite type of waterer which is the nipple style.

chicken waterers

These are just a little valve with a shinny metal tab sticking out that the chickens peck at to get water.  Sometimes you need to show your chickens how to use them, I just take one or two of them and hold it right in front of the nipple.  Basically chickens see something shinny, peck at it and get wet.  Eventually they figure it out and the rest of the flock follows suit.

The nipples are cheap and can be installed into a 5 gallon bucket or into a run of pvc pipe.  This means I can do long runs of these that are tied into a water system so I can set it up for several days of water without any extra work.  An important side note is that you can’t uses these on chicks.

Feeders

There are several types of these, I still haven’t found a favorite type, so let me know what has worked for you in the comments.  I am looking for something that will feed the chickens easily for a few days automatically.  Right now the best option is a vertical PVC pipe about 6″ wide with a opening cut at the bottom.

So that’s some of the key things you need to work into your design when you build your own coop.  Let me know what you plan to do for yours in the comments!

Your Turn!

  • What kind of coop do you hope to build?
  • What tricks have you learned?

Veg Gardens

I found this video and it got me thinking, what if we here in America had laws and the politicians thinking this way.  The other really good point this video brings up is with all the concerns about being eco-friendly, sustainable and peak oil, it can get overwhelming.  In a way it doesn’t matter whether or not peak oil is happening, whether there is such thing as global warming, we should be taking on the goals of sustainability for a plethora of reasons.