Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Gardening with Limited Space

You love your city life. The proximity to everything you need and want, the city lights, the skyline. But maybe you want a taste of the country life, fresh veggies or herbs that you grow yourself! It may seem out of your grasp, but it's within your reach!
I once had an agriculture teacher who grew up in an apartment in town. While all of the other kids were raising goats, pigs, and lambs as projects for the county fair, he was struggling to figure out a good FFA project to do. The solution? Growing vegetables in his bedroom window!

What do I need to grow plants? 

You need light, soil, and water. Oh and a place to put them. Some folks also like to use fertilizer, such as miracle grow. This is fine, but I prefer to use nature's soil (yes, that means composted chicken poop!) If you have a pet rabbit or guinea pig, their poop is awesome as well!

Where can I put these plants?

I always start my plants in the big bay window in our living room. They receive the morning light, and then limited light throughout the day. Then, as they get bigger, I plant them in larger pots and eventually plant them outside. If you live in a suburban environment, this method will work perfectly fine! However, a fully urban setting probably won't allow you yard space to plant a big outdoor garden! Don't worry though, there are other ways!

Terrace garden

In this method, you plant in large pots and put your veggies on your terrace. They can really beautify the space, while also giving you fresh veggies and herbs!
I found a great blog about having a garden in the city - particularly terrace gardening!

Sun room

If you happen to have a sun room (a room with glass walls) This is a perfect place to grow plants. It's like a little greenhouse! Just like the terrace garden, plant in pots and arrange them in a way that suits you and the plants!

Saving space

Whether you have a small suburban backyard, a terrace, or a sunroom, it is important to save as much space as possible while still growing a decent amount of crops. 

Pallet Garden

One of my favorite methods of this is the pallet garden! Staple some plastic to the back of it, really pack in the dirt, plant, and then lean the pallet against a wall or fence! I like to grow smaller plants, like herbs, or vining plants in these gardens. Here is an excellent full tutorial on how to make a pallet garden: http://www.growingagreenerworld.com/creating-a-pallet-garden-step-by-step-instructions/

Mini Greenhouse

Ever wanted a greenhouse? You can make a tiny one for less than $30! A basic greenhouse is made of a square base (I prefer wood for this) and flexible PVC to create a "dome" shape, then plastic is stretched over the pipe. This type of greenhouse is light enough to be moved around. It is also cheap and simple enough to be torn down and reassembled each year! 
Here is a very useful article on a DIY mini greenhouse: http://www.dandelionking.net/do-it-yourself-greenhouse.php

How do I fertilize my garden?

You have a couple options when fertilizing your garden. How you do so depends on whether or not you want your crops to be considered "organic" or not. Personally, I prefer compost, because it is free!


If you live in an apartment or condo, you may think that composting is just not possible, but that's not necessarily true. Check out this article about indoor compost, and it's increasing popularity in Canada, and this post about personal experiences with indoor composting. If you're doing an indoor composter, do not attempt to compost meat. No amount of air freshener will fix that mistake. Stick to veggie scraps and poo from the pet rabbit/guinea pig/hamster. If you are doing an outdoor composter, there are mixed opinions on the matter. You can, but if you don't have a big yard or you have close neighbors, you may want to rethink it. Meat also may bring in animals to your yard. Most of my kitchen scraps go to my chickens, whose poop then goes into the compost pile. However, if the meat is spoiled and therefore inedible by even chickens, I put it at the bottom of the compost pile to decompose without horrid smells. We've done this for years and it's never been a problem! However, keep in mind, the bottom of my compost pile is buried under a couple feet of soiled straw and grass clippings. Remember to wash your hands after tending to composting materials (especially poop)!

Commercial Fertilizer

If you are growing organic, skip this completely. Realistically, there is little evidence to show that commercial fertilizer will actually hurt you at all. Studies suggest it has no effect on the body to eat plants that have been grown with commercial fertilizer as compared to organic food. So don't feel bad if you don't want to have a composter in your kitchen, it's not for everyone! A popular fertilizer than people use for flower gardens is miracle grow, and that will work fine for your run-of-the-mill garden veggies. Large companies and greenhouses generally use stronger commercial fertilizers, which I avoid because my skin does not agree with it, at all. Personally, I don't use fertilizers anymore because I have a free option, compost. If you use fertilizer, make sure you mix it properly and store the container properly. 

What plants should I choose?

What you should plant depends on what you want from your garden and what you have space for. 

Small apartments and condos

Veggies/Fruits - small tomato varieties, such as cherry tomatoes, are good options, and can be grown in a hanging  planter, like a bucket with a big hole drilled in the bottom, or a topsy-turvy planter! You can also grow a few single green bean (bush-type) or pea plants. Peppers are generally small plants (under 2') and can be  grown in a decent sized pot. Strawberries are excellent small plants as well, you could probably have one in your windowsill! 

Herbs - herbs are a pretty easy plant for small spaces. Most don't get extremely large, and make your house smell delightful. I enjoy growing basil, oregano, lavender, mint, and catnip (kitties just love it)!
You can use them fresh and raw to cook with, or you can dry them and crunch them up. You can dry the old-fashioned way, by hanging them up, or you can use a dehydrator. 

Suburban Home

Most likely, you can have a few plants outside, so you have a bit more freedom!

Veggies/Fruits - Tomatoes (whatever type you wish), green beans, wax beans, possibly potatoes, and peppers are  all good options for the average backyard garden. Corn should  generally be avoided, as stalks can be over 6' tall with some species. If you do wish to grow corn, choose a variety that have a shorter stalk. I've planed Ruby Queen Hybrid corn several times (suppose to be 7' tall) but each time grew just 3-4', yet with fully sized cobs! I have no idea why, as my other corn doesn't do this. As for fruits, you can do well with some properly-maintained berry vines. Many berry vines naturally have thorns, but you can get the thornless variety for easy harvesting - which I strongly suggest if you have children! Remember to trim them each year after they turn brown. Poorly maintained berry vines can quickly swallow up your backyard!

Herbs - Pretty much anything they sell in the lawn & garden department. You can even keep them inside if you want!

Happy Gardening!

I hope your garden does well, and all the veggies, fruits,  and spices taste absolutely delightful! May you and your family eat delicious, healthy food that is right at your fingertips! Above all, have fun with your garden, however you choose to raise it! 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Chicken Behavior: Normal or Abnormal

Sometimes, our chickens do things that we simply don't understand. If you have chickens, you've probably looked out your window and thought "That stupid bird, why on earth is it doing that?"
So, why do chickens do certain things, and what is normal for them to do?

What are normal chicken behaviors?

Normal behaviors in chickens can seem odd to us. However, for this article, note that there is a difference between "normal" and "natural" behaviors. Natural behaviors can change by the situation that the bird is in, and is driven by it's instinct, though it may not be normal because it's not something the bird does under typical circumstances. For example, cannibalism in chickens is not normal in a flock with plenty of space, but is caused by a natural instinct when overcrowded. Cannibalism is a natural behavior that suggests a problem. 

So, let's explore some normal chicken behaviors. 

Fighting. Like any other animal, chickens sometimes fight over food and dominance among other things. If you have two roosters, they will likely get in a couple of fights because they need to sort out who is the lead rooster. Fighting is okay, but if they are fighting to a point of serious injury, you may want to intervene. 

Mating. Chicken mating does not look fun. It looks a lot like the rooster is trying to kill the hen, especially among young pullets and cockerels. Between a mature lead rooster and hen, the cock will (sometimes) do a "dance" in which he drops his wing and walks in a half circle towards the hen. If the hen accepts, she will squat for him, and he will jump on top of her. They touch their vents together so the semen enters the hen's vent (the rooster has no penis). The act is short, usually lasting between 5 and 15 seconds, and does not always go smoothly. The hen can then store the semen for up to three weeks, and sometimes longer.  With younger pullets and cockerels, they mating may not be so easy. The cockerel will generally skip the "dance" and just hop on. The pullets often don't squat, or try to touch her vent to his. They may even try to get away. This looks violent, but they will eventually get the hang of it. Here is a video of mating, without the dance.

Scratching. Chickens will scratch the ground to dig up bugs and plants to eat. They leave a "chicken scratch" or thinned patches of grass. If you don't like these patches, you can keep your chickens in a designated area. If you don't mind the thin patches, the chickens eat tons of those pesky bugs that live in your grass! You may never have to deal  with another slug ever again, for the low cost of a few bald spots on your lawn!

Cease Laying. Hens stop laying eggs when they are molting, and, with most breeds, in the winter. This is completely normal. You can encourage your hens to continue laying in the winter by using an artificial light for a couple hours after sunset each day. Some roosters will also need photostimulated to produce sperm. They stop laying during a molt to conserve energy and protein for growing new feathers. During this time, there is nothing you can do to make them lay, and it would be unhealthy to do so. You can feed them high-protein treats like cat food or nuts to assist the process. Most chickens molt for the first time in fall of the second or third year, but some molt within their first year. It is also not uncommon for them to molt during the winter. 

Crowing, morning-day-night. It is often accepted that roosters only crow in the morning, this is not true. Roosters can crow from the moment they can see UV rays, until they go to sleep the next night. Some roosters even wake up and crow! So why do roosters crow? There are many reasons. They crow to let their presence be known to other roosters, to take possession of hens, to call the hens to him, and just because he feels like it. This is normal behavior. To keep the rooster from waking you, I suggest using a fan to block out noise.

Preening. This is when a chicken cleans their feathers, and they spend a lot of time doing it. They use their beak and tongue to remove loose dirt and bugs from their feathers. It may appear as though they are puling their feathers out, but that are not. 

Dusting. Chickens love to dust! They use their legs and wings to loosen up dirt, and then they roll in that loose dirt. This helps to prevent mites and other external parasites. Using old tires to make dusting pits may keep them out of your flowerbeds. 

Broodiness. Some people become concerned that their chicken is depressed when it sits on a nest, not moving, and hissing at them when they come near her. However, she has just gone broody! A broody hen will sit on eggs, even if they are infertile. Some will even attempt to hatch golf balls! This is normal behavior. If you wish to have more chicks, put some fertile eggs under her! Because she can raise the chicks with the flock, you don't have to go through the trouble of introducing them later on.

Abnormal Behavior 

Pecking and Feather Picking. Pecking is a common problem, and is abnormal when it becomes obsessive. Whether you have a chicken that is doing it to themselves or others, it's a sign that your bird is bored or overcrowded. If you have enough space for your chickens, then it may be due to a specific bird which, if excessive, may need to be culled for the health of the rest of the flock. 

Cannibalism. Chickens are naturally cannibalistic. If they see a dead chicken, they have no problem eating it, and it will not hurt them as long as the carcass is not diseased. However, killing and eating a fellow flock member is not normal. It suggests that your flock is overcrowded. This is often a problem seen in commercial flocks, both in battery cages and in barns. If you're having this problem, you need to reduce your flock size or increase your coop/run size. 

Overmating/Aggressive Mating. Aggressive mating is often a problem with young cockerels and pullets. Cockerels will gang up on a pullet, forcing her down, one after another. This is not normal mating and may seriously injure the pullet, and she should be removed if this happens. Though they are inexperienced and aren't sure what to do, mating should be a quick process that she can get up and shake off. Overmating is a bit more normal, but still suggests a problem. It is when the cock's spurs tear off the feathers on the back and/or on the neck (from his beak) due to mating too often. This can happen when there is not enough hens for one rooster, or adolescent cockerels which tend to be a little rough. The problem can be solved by culling* excess roosters, adding more hens, or outfitting your hens with chicken saddles.

Wing Drooping. Droopy wings and tails are a common sign of multiple illnesses. If you notice a chicken with droopy wings, you should immediately examine your chicken. It appears as the chicken is slightly squatted, with its wings a bit spread and pointed downward, rather than held against the body as they would be normally.

Lethargy. Not to be confused with broodiness, lethargy suggests illness. Chickens normally like to stay up, awake, and peck around. A chicken that is lying in one spot for extended periods of time, unable to hold its head up, or have difficulty walking is lethargic and possibly sick. 

Human Aggression. This is actually a normal, but intolerable, behavior, most commonly among males. A rooster may fly up to you, flapping his wings and trying to hit you with his claws and spurs. This can be very dangerous, especially around children, as a cock's spurs can grow over two inches long and are sharp. If a rooster attacks you from above (flying), knock him directly to the ground.  If he attacks your feet, give him a little shove-kick (not enough to injure him). Then, pick him up and force him to stay still under your arm, or just chase him around for a few seconds. This will tell him "I am the boss, I am the lead chicken, you do not attack me!" Yes, to chickens, we are all just a bunch of chickens,

Crowing hen. This is a fairly uncommon occurrence, yet it does happen. When it does, it is usually an older hen that is taking on the role of a rooster, especially if a rooster has been removed. It doesn't sound exactly like a rooster's crow, however. This video shows two hens crowing at each other!

Inter-species mating. This is generally abnormal behavior, but isn't always a problem. Guineas and chickens can mate fairly safely. However, a male duck over a chicken hen can be dangerous. Male chickens do not have penises, so hens are not meant to breed that way. Male ducks not only have a penis, but a corkscrew-shaped phallus that may be covered in small barbs. A drake mating with a chicken could be very harmful. 

In conclusion 

Thank you for reading, I hope I was able to help with any questions you may have had. If you have any tips or suggestions, comment or contact me through the "Contact Me" page. 

Sources and Links:

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Feed: Organic or Conventional?

If you've been on any online forums that have to do with food, you've probably seen people arguing about this subject. Organic vs. Normal feed. So, what's the hype? We're going to sift through some evidence, decide which is credible, and hopefully help you decide what is best for your situation!

What is the definition of "organic"?

According to the FDA, farmers labeling foods as "organic" must raise and grow their crops with no herbicides or pesticides,  use manure or compost as fertilizer, and must feed animals feed made from plants matching that description. Organic foods must also be non-GMO (not a genetically modified organism).

Organic Feeds - Common arguments

  • GMOs make animals and people sick
  • Pesticides never leave the plant
  • Organic foods are healthier
  • Conventional farming harms the environment
  • "Normal" feeds contain antibiotics 
  • Pesticides and herbicides leave residue in eggs
  • Animals in conventional farms are treated poorly, better in organic farms

Conventional Feeds - Common arguments

  • It is more practical to use conventional feeds
  • Medicated chick feed can prevent chicks from dying 
  • Conventional feeds can be produced at a much higher rate 
  • There are more viable options with conventional feed
  • Organic is a "fad" food 
  • Pesticides do not hurt the ecosystem much 
With all of this information, we need to be open minded, yet skeptical about the source of people's information. What sources are credible? Let's first eliminate what statements are completely or partially false. 

Statements on Organics

"GMOs make animals and people sick"
There is no credible evidence that GMOs are worse for consumption.
"Organics are healthier"
According to Stanford University, organic foods are not any different from their conventional counterparts nutritionally. Even organicfacts.net, an advocate for organic foods, admits that there is little evidence in favor of the belief that organics have health benefits.
"Normal feeds contain antibiotics"
Some commercial feeds contain antibiotics, though it is closely regulated by the government. Store bought conventional feeds (Purina Layena, Dumor feeds, etc.) do NOT contain antibiotics. Some chick feeds contain small amounts of antibiotics, because chicks are susceptible to many types of bacteria while their immune system is still developing.
"Normal feeds leave pesticide residue in eggs"
There is a pesticide residue on the feed, but not enough to affect the egg.

Statements on Conventional feed

"Organics are a fad"
This is partially untrue, as technically, today's conventional farming developed within the past century. "Organic" farming has taken place throughout most of human history/
"Pesticides do not hurt the ecosystem much"
The chemicals used in farming can be pretty bad for the environment, especially once they reach water. Runoff can be devastating to the ecosystem of ponds and lakes, killing tons of fish at a time. It can take a long time for the ecosystem to recover. 

So what is true?

Now that we've debunked the incredible information, let's go on to the supporting information!

Organics - Supporting Information

"Animals in organic farms are treated better than those in conventional farms"
This is true, for the most part. Organic-raised cattle, goats, sheep, etc. must have access to pasture during the grazing season. Conventional farms have them kept in cramped areas, fed only feed, and unable to perform natural behaviors. Organic chickens cannot be kept in battery cages. When buying animal products at a store, organics are clearly the more ethical choice.

"Pesticides never leave the plant"
This is partially true. If pesticides or herbicides are used on a plant, there will be some residue on the plant when it gets to your table. There is little evidence suggesting that this is very harmful, but many families don't like the thought of it. 

In order to sell your eggs as organic, you must feed your chickens organic feed. Being able to legally consider your eggs organic can get you two more dollars by the dozen of eggs. To many, this is worth an additional $7 on a bag of feed. 

Conventional feeds - Supporting information

"It is more practical to use conventional feeds"
Conventional feed is much, much cheaper. Because the risk is incredibly low and possibly nonexistant, many chicken owners find that it makes more sense to use conventional feeds (without antibiotics). 
"Medicated chick feed saves lives"
It is not uncommon for chicks to die. It's natural selection, the ones with the strongest immune systems live to reproduce. Unfortunately, when you only have six chicks, for of them getting sick and dying means a big loss. Medicated chick feed and assure that the most possible chicks will survive. By the time they lay an egg or are ready to be processed, the antibiotics are long out of their system. 
"There are more viable options with conventional feed"
In conventional feed, there are a lot more brands to choose from, with more competitive prices. If you feel that one company does not have proper nutrition, there are tons of other options in the same feed store. 

Conclusion: Organic or Conventional?

As far as whether or not organic food is better for you? The answer is most likely no. Raising your chickens solely on organic feed will most likely not benefit them or you as opposed to feeding them conventional feed. However, choosing organics over conventional foods is much better for the environment and much more ethical. Organic feeds have not contributed as much to the pollution of aquatic ecosystems, and other organic foods do not contribute to animal cruelty. Buying organic is a  decision of ethics, rather than health. Ultimately, it is your decision as to what is best for your family and your livestock. Both organic and conventional feeds are viable, realistic options. 

Sources and links: