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vegetables-basketBeginning in Mid November, I’m going to add a YouTube series especially for New Gardeners. If you’re a first time gardener or homesteader, this will be your new home. Don’t worry, it will benefit you old timers, too.

I’m going to start with my Winter Clean up (Trust me, that will be a major undertaking) and take you through the process of getting a spring garden all started.

I know there is a lot of material out there, but there is also a great deal of misinformation, as well, so I feel compelled to do this. You deserve it.

Along the way, I’ll point you to some really trustworthy blogs and YouTube channels.

For Now, enjoy Halloween. My wife and I are still in Scotland, so I assure you, we’re having a blast.

 

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dozen_eggsThe incredible edible egg. We love them and we fear them. Should we eat more of them, or run from them? Are they giving us heart attacks or are they full of good things to make us strong and healthy? Where’s the truth? What should we do?

I want to cut through the propaganda, and give you a high level, short answer and hopefully clear things up for you a bit. If you want to know more, there are plenty of articles, stories and research papers out there to keep you reading the rest of your life.

The spark for this post was a Facebook poster showing the inside of two boiled eggs. One had a deep golden yolk, captioned, ‘organic’. The other was light yellow, with those familiar green hues we’ve all become familiar with from traditional boiled eggs, and captioned, “gmo”.

I will leave aside the photo manipulation and let you do your own homework as to how that was done. Let’s just say, it was extremely misleading.

My gripe is with the labeling. There is no such thing as a GMO egg.  And, in a sense, all eggs are ‘organic’. They are laid by living chickens and laid in a natural way, thus organic.

The organic vs. GMO argument is about the feed given to the hens.  And even then, the photo can be misleading.

In a confined, commercial chicken house, where thousands of hens are kept in tight, controlled conditions, if hens are fed grain based diets, devoid of sunlight, then even if the feed is ‘organic’ the eggs will have pale, lifeless, nutritionally lacking yolks.

Conversely, if hens are free ranging, and have access to fields of GMO corn and wheat, the yolks will be rich yellow, and still be ‘GMO’ fed.

It’s all about sunlight and chlorophyll. That color comes from access to real sunlight and omega 3 rich grasses (Remember, corn, wheat, barley, etc. are grasses when they’re at home).

Eggs from free range hens, are more nutritious, and attractive, than those from battery raise ones, because of the variety in their diet, and because of their access to sunlight and the chlorophylls in the green plants they consume.  These greens are full of omega 3s which are good for you.

The chicken house raised birds, generally produce paler, flavor reduced eggs that are higher in omega 6 fatty acids, which are the ones that block our arteries. 

And remember, chickens are omnivores rather than vegetarians. They eat all kinds of things when left to their own devices, so feeding them a restricted vegetarian diet, whether organic or GMO, is preventing them from the balanced, nutrient rich fare they really need.

So, looking for ‘cage free’, ‘vegetarian fed’, or, ‘organic’ labels on supermarket eggs, means very little. They are marketing gimmicks. Don’t fall for them. They don’t ensure anything for you, other than a higher total at the check out.  ‘Free Range’ is the label you’re looking for. And even that might be misleading.

Raise your own birds, if you can, or buy directly from a farmer or at a farmers’ market for the best results.

I know many of you are raising, or want to raise, birds, but don’t have the space to free range them. Perhaps your community has restrictions that keep you from doing so. If that’s you, don’t worry.  If you make sure you have a nice a roomy, dry shelter for protection from the elements, and a run where your chickens can get real sunlight you’ll be fine.  In addition to a good chicken feed, give them access to some table scraps, and include plenty of lettuce, kale, and other greens and they will reward you with lots of awesome, delicious, and nutritious eggs.  I promise.

Do you raise your own chickens or other birds? If so, tell us about your results? We’d love to hear them?  Got questions about how to get started? Then use the comments section to ask this awesome group of readers.  We’re here to help. After all, we’re all in this together.

 

 

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 It appears that Aquaponic Gardening in the USA is continuing to gather interest throughout the country, but it’s also facing a great deal of turnover due to the expense and fairly steep learning curve of start up.  Many excited newcomers, balk after seeing the high cost of pre made kits, or even the complicated nature of DIY when compared to growing in raised beds or traditional in ground gardens.

For those who manage a successful set up, new unforeseen headaches appear with water. Who really knew dechlorination and pH balance would be so time consuming and pricey, or that maintaining a thriving colony of bacteria that continuously convert ammonia to nitrites then nitrates is not as easy as it looks in diagrams or on YouTube.

Oh, let’s not forget about the fish. Waking up to fish floating in your tank is not only expensive, it’s discouraging, especially when you’ve poured a lot of hard earned money into having (Usually) Tilapia shipped from halfway across the country, only to watch them die in the first month or six weeks. In my case, I spent several hundred dollars learning that I could not raise redclaw crayfish here. I’m a slow learner.

The failure rate of ‘commercial’ ventures is even greater. The USA landscape is littered with abandoned Aquaponics systems that were going to make a fortune by selling premium products at premium prices to an ever growing health conscious public, who’ve grown tired of poisoning themselves with traditional supermarket fare.

The truth is, that there are only a relatively few places in America where the demographic that can afford premium prices, the proper climate for successful Aquaponic Farming, and would be entrepreneurs with the fortitude and work ethic to succeed are able to intersect.

I know some awesome people in west central and central Florida who are making it happen. I cannot promote them too highly. But they also work their butts off to make it happen.  Many, if not most, Aquaponics dreamers are simply not prepared to pay that price.

A large percentage of the success stories in the more temperate climates are not really commercial ventures at all, but are non profits, dependent on grants, gifts and donations to stay afloat. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the model per se, but running a non profit is a whole different animal and requires a different set of skills than a for profit commercial farm.  Many would be Aquaponic farmers miss that difference and are destined for failure from the beginning.

Like its older sibling, hydroponics, Aquaponic farming is NOT the future of food production. It has its appeal, it has a niche where it can be successful, but it is not going to begin replacing traditional gardening and farming anytime soon.

If you have stayed with me this far, you probably think I’m some kind of hater or have sour grapes about my own lack of success with aquaponics. If that’s what you think, you would be wrong by a mile. In fact, I am within a few days of setting up my 2016 backyard aquaponics system, and I already have several hydroponic projects going.

What I want to do, is cut through a lot of the boloney and help you be successful, or at least help you set realistic expectations if you’re new to aquaponic gardening, especially if you’re on a budget.

I have no intention of discussing how to begin a commercial aquaponics farm.  I understand marketing and sales, because that’s my background, and I’m an entrepreneur to the marrow in my bones, but I have no experience in commercial aquaponics farming, and I will not pretend I do. A successful commercial aquaponics farm is a unique animal. It will require capital, patience and night and day work for a long time.  I will tell you that, as I’ve already mentioned, location is mission critical. Out here where my wife and I live, such a venture would be a disaster. If you are really keen on investigating how you might launch a commercial project, email me, or use the comments section and I’ll be happy to direct you to some people in the business who will give you good answers without the bull. This article is for people who want to begin a backyard, basement, or garage system.

First, understand that you can build several raised beds or buy a whole lot of containers for what a backyard aquaponics system is going to set you back. A small ‘off the shelf system’ that will keep a handful of fish and grow a few veggies will cost you over $1000.  If you’re going to grow in your garage or basement you’re going to have to add in costs of lighting and water temperature regulation, which can be significant. 

If you’re going DIY it can be much cheaper, but still significant. First there is the cost of Fish Tanks and grow beds. Will you use plastic barrels, IBC containers, stock tanks, or some other container? Your cost will be determined by what you choose and where you source it. I have historically used plastic barrels and stock tanks, but I also have some IBC totes for potential future use.

Plumbing costs money. There is the pvc, fittings, valves, hoses, cutting tools to consider, in addition to the costs of a filtration system.  Unless you already have an off grid power supply, you’re going to have to find a way to operate the water and air pumps. If you plan to run year round you’ll also have water heating costs.

Now, for the fish. Most of us began with Tilapia. Most of us failed. If you live in in Florida, south Texas, Arizona, Nevada or Southern California, you might get away with it. For most of the USA, however, the only way to successfully raise Talipia, is to heat the water at least part of the year and/or to raise them inside. When water temps get below 50 degrees F, Tilapia are going to die. For example, my inlaws live in west central Florida just south of Tampa Bay.  They have wild Tilapia in the ponds and lakes around them. A couple of years back, during a particularly cold spell, tens of thousands of Tilapia died and floated to the surface of the local ponds. Now just imagine what would happen here in north Georgia, or Kentucky, or Indiana, or Montana, or Maine. I think you get the picture. Tilapia can handle a wide range of water quality conditions, but water temperatures are literally a killer.

I was successful growing Tilapia in my basement and garage when we lived in town, but it wasn’t cheap. I gave up very quickly once we moved out here in the country. The cost of heating water in my greenhouse was prohibitive.

On the other hand, I love gardening and many things grew better in aquaponics than they did for me using more traditional methods, so I started thinking outside the Tilapia.

After it became just too expensive to raise Tilapia, I tried bluegill and catfish. They grow great here. I suggest you look into what might work in your area. In many places, especially north of the Mason Dixon, Yellow Perch are a good option. They grow relatively quickly and are extremely tasty.

In our case, my wife doesn’t eat fresh water fish, so it was pointless growing them. If I want some crappie filets, I just go to the lake and catch some. Easy.  The last two summers, I’ve grown goldfish.  They are 20 cents apiece at the pet store. That price is hard to beat. If you don’t eat fish, if you are on a budget, or if you don’t intend to grow year round, goldfish may be a great option.

Other options include minnows and Koi. Minnows are cheap, easy to raise, and can be used, or sold as bait for crappie and bass fishing.  Our ducks like them, too. Koi are often in demand for backyard ponds and can easily pay for themselves.

Koi, minnows, goldfish, bluegill, catfish, and many other varieties can be overwintered if the tanks are deep enough, but my wife and I have decided that growing all year round is not worth it for us. We live in Bartow County Georgia, not Adelaide, Australia. 

My systems work this way. I set up my system(s) in April, stock it with goldfish, and grow exclusively lettuces, herbs and greens in raft (DWC) systems. By doing this and using plenty of oxygen in the water, I can keep growing lettuces almost all summer. I can also grow Okra very successfully in rafts.  By growing these things aquaponically and hydroponically, I have lots more room in my traditional garden for tomatoes, peppers, melons and etc.

Once fall comes, I will grow some kale and swiss chard. Then once things get too cold for gardening to be fun, I take the system down for the winter. The fish will be fed to the ducks and chickens. It’s that simple.

Aquaponics can be fun and rewarding. To make sure it is, think about where you live. What fish will work where you are? Do you want to eat your fish, or will they be just for aesthetic enjoyment?  Will you grow seasonally or all year round? Will you grow outside or in? What’s your budget?

In short, do your homework. It’s the equivalent of measure twice, cutting once. And by all means, think OUTSIDE the Tilapia.

Please email me with any questions or add your comments. After all, we’re in this together.

 

 

 

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Wow. Just Wow.

logoI have to be honest and tell you all, I haven’t looked at this page in months.  Brittan told me I should get my rear end over here and see how much activity we’ve had even without updating.

Being the obedient husband, I did just that and I was blown away by how much traffic we’ve had. You all rock.

What I’ve learned from trying to move my work to a broader base is that there is a huge appetite for information dedicated to the backyard gardener/homesteader.  So, with that in mind, I’m going to reopen this spot.

I’ll do my best to update weekly, usually on Monday or Tuesday.

Thanks for being so faithful.

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Nacho Libre, Hero in Recovery

Nacho Libre, Hero in Recovery

Note: While some literary license has been taken, this tale is based on actual events that took place on the nights of April 20 and 21, 2014.

This is Nacho Libre, best known round here simple as The Nach.  At first glance, to the casual viewer, he is an ordinary tabby cat, but I assure you, dear reader, he is many things, but ordinary is not among them.  Indulge me a moment as his tale of valor unfolds.

Nacho was an unexpected member of our household. He came into our lives in a most unusual manner. We were on our way to a Tapas party/Bible study, and running a little late, when the pick up truck ahead of us slowed to a stop. The passenger side door opened and a striking tabby kitten was unceremoniously tossed from the vehicle. The cat instantly turned and tried to leap back inside, but his little body met a boot instead of the soft interior of truck. The door quickly closed, leaving the wee feline fellow sitting bewilderdly in the middle of our country road.

My bride and l looked at one another and agreed that A. the people in the truck were less than human and B. we couldn’t leave the poor chap to whatever fate would befall him if we failed to intervene.

The little furball turned out to be a most agreeable kitten and easily allowed Brittan to pick him up. We turned the vehicle around and headed home to introduce our new friend to the rest of the collection of dogs and cats who graciously allow us to live with them.  The name we chose was easy and quite natural since we found him on  our way to a Tapas dinner. There wasn’t even a debate. He was, and will always be, Nacho.

Nearly a year has passed since our serendipitous meeting, and Nacho has become a much loved and appreciated family member. He loves all of God’s creatures whether human, mammal or avian. He is often seen cuddled with one of our Mastiffs or grooming them as if those giant brutes were his own children.  The dogs love him, the farm animals accept him, and Gisabella the tabby cat, as queen of this castle, tolerates him as a necessary inconvenience.

It has been my considered opinion that there was not a violent bone in Nacho’s body. He is a lover, not a fighter. My opinion forever changed last night when urgency released the lion hidden beneath the lamb.

Our country neighborhood has been plagued the past few months by a pair of chicken killing cats. One is a huge yellow brute and the other is a rather ordinary looking thing, but black as death and savage as a devil.

Even we, despite the watchful eye of Romeo, our guardian donkey, lost a hen recently, when one of the two butchers slipped in and grabbed a sleeping bird while Romeo was otherwise engaged. Once the donkey became aware of the invasion, he sprang into action and chased the killer across the pasture, forcing the beast to drop the carcass before jumping over the fence and escaping. Not much gets by Romeo, so this foul creature must be something released from Abyss itself.

Two nights ago, in the hours after midnight, but long before the first rays of dawn touch the eastern sky, the silence was shattered by the cries of not one, but two cats in a struggle just outside our window. The skirmish was brief and the sound of a cat fleeing across our deck and into the night, was clearly audible.

Some ninety seconds later, Nacho scratched at the door, wanting in, as his evenings work was complete. He was none the worse for wear, though a subtle swagger was evident in his stride.

He lounged the day away, then about nine last evening he pleaded to go outside. Since we live in the country and Nacho has always been an inside/outside cat, we relented. His usual pattern is to run off towards the greenhouse in search of adventure or rodents or both. Last night, however, he went to the edge of the porch, went into a crouch and began to scan the horizon like a sentry on a wall.

At roughly 4:30 a.m. The interloper returned, undoubtedly in search of a chicken dinner. Romeo was on baby goat duty two pastures and three gates away so was in no position to lend assistance. The dogs were inside, all nestled in bed, while visions of sugar plumbs danced in their heads. The hens were roosting in the semi comatose way hens do, vulnerable to even the most inept predators. The thing that stalked them, though, was anything but inept.

As the creature skulked through the starlight, sniffing the air trying to locate the nearest potential victim, the roosting hens one hope was a once abandoned tabby with an unnatural love for dogs. Nacho Libre was on patrol.

I can almost picture the scene as my striped lover boy positioned himself in the monster’s path.

“You shall not pass!”

In an instant, in less than in instant, the two felines met tooth and claw in mid air, slashing and biting as they tumbled to the earth. The night erupted in the sounds of battle as the combatants screamed and swore, one intent on murder, the other determined to prevent it.

Two pastures and three gates away, Romeo the vigilant, gathered his charges behind him, pricked his ears and brayed a warning to the invader and encouragement to Nacho the defender. I could hear the urgency in Romeo’s voice. If he could have done so, he would have stood beside dear Nacho and ended the beast’s reign of terror once and for all.

The screams were now primal as the battle moved from the deck to the ground.  I leaped to my feet to grab a flashlight and a rifle, but, as quickly as it had begun, the battle was over and silence reigned. I opened the back door and stepped outside, fearing the very worst, but what to my wondering eyes should appear, but an exhausted, but victorious tabby cat now ready for a long winters nap.

Nacho entered the house, had a quick bite of food and a drink of water and went to his bed for a well earned sleep.

I was at the feed store this morning when Nacho limped out of bed, in obvious pain. Brittan called the vet, thinking the cat’s leg was broken. She had Nacho in her arms and was headed to the car when I arrived back.  Because it was raining, I merely tossed the feedbags in the barn and off we went to have our brave soldier looked at.

Resting comfortably

Resting comfortably

The veterinarian quickly assessed the damage and determined that while the leg was not broken, Nacho was covered in bites and scratch marks, some of them serious and gruesome.  Our knight in stripey armor had protected the flock, defended the manor from the devil cat and driven the beast away, but had paid a price to do so. He is on antibiotics and anti inflammatories. He has slept pretty much all day and will be forced to stay in for a few days. We feel so bad for our hero. He won’t be able to take his turn on patrol for a while, but I have a feeling Devil Cat won’t be visiting East of Eden Farms, for a long, long, long time, if ever again. He met is own nightmare, and his fear has a name, NACHO LIBRE!

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PollinationI’ve been following the story of an Australian certified organic canola farmer who recently lost his organic certification because his fields were contaminated by his neighbor’s GMO crop.  You can imagine how devastating it’s been for him.  He works hard to ‘do things right’ and still ends up with nearby fields pollinating his crops.

The story made me think about how difficult it really is to be truly ‘organic’, especially those of us in the suburbs and exurbs. In most neighborhoods, even those where the HOA still allows back yard gardens, the streets are filled with trucks from those companies that spray yards with fertilizers, weed killers and pesticides.  As closely packed as most subdivisions are, is there really any way to prevent contamination of our gardens?

Calling ‘organic’ a ‘myth’ is perhaps hyperbole, but I wanted to emphasize how very difficult it is to achieve and why so many have given up on the idea.

First of all, there’s the wind that blows wherever it wants. The wind understands nothing of property lines or boundaries. As the neighbor’s lawn care or pest removal service sprays for weeds, bugs and to chemically fertilize, is it unreasonable to believe that wind drift could affect the place next door?

What about neighborhoods on hills? The yard at the top of a hill gets treated regularly. The neighbor next door or two doors down, is trying to grow an organic garden. Is it assured that during heavy rains, nothing washes into the organic garden and yard?

Then there are the birds, the bees, the insects and the small mammals who roam freely, carrying pollen and everything else they’ve picked up along the way.  They spread it with their feet, their legs, their beaks, their poop.

Out here on the very edge of suburbia, where we live now (sometimes called, the exurbs), we are smack in the middle of  conventional cotton and bean fields. Some of the farmers alternate with rape seed.  The fields are regularly sprayed.  The area is rather wide open and the breezes blow pretty much all the time.  The same birds, bees and butterflies that buzz the bean fields down the road, play on our blossoms, as well.

All we can do, is practice the best natural farming and gardening methods we can, and leave the rest up to nature.  Chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are not going away anytime soon.  We are surrounded and out numbered. We fight on.

What about you? Do you practice organic growing methods? What challenges do you face? Are you conventional and think the whole organic thing is humbug? We love to hear from readers. Let us know you thoughts.

As a way of saying thanks to all our readers, everyone who comments on the blog during the month of March is being entered into a drawing to win a copy of Ed Smith’s awesome book, “Incredible Vegetables In Self Watering Containers”.

Send us your gardening questions, pics and ideas. We’ll share them with the world.

 

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