Saturday, August 3, 2013

Sustainable Veggie Garden

We are so excited to say that our garden efforts in the spring are paying off. If you read our previous post Busy with Early Summer Tasks, then you know we harvested these: peas, kale, spinach, cucumbers, dill, cilantro, and collards.

Since then, we also harvested potatoes, green beans, yellow and red onions, tomatoes, green peppers, and black-eyed peas. Yummy! And we've also harvested some of our  perennial herbs like rosemary, thyme, and green onions.

So let me tell you a little bit about our veggie garden. This is not your conventional garden; this one is sustainable and based on permaculture concepts.
  • First off, it's huge - approximately a half acre (bigger than our whole lot was back in Houston).
  • The garden is situated in a valley, where it has collected the fertile topsoil from the neighboring hills for centuries. 
  • It also had the added benefit of years of cattle grazing and natural composting.  Grazing was halted for two years before the garden was built.
  • Additionally, we hauled our own compost from Houston to this very spot for the last 5 years. 
  • We rented a chipper and shredded branches and shrubs that were cleared and dried.  The chips were left in piles to use in the garden and orchard.
  • After doing some prescribed burning of brush, we harvested charcoal to add nutrients and hold water in the garden soil.
  • A trencher was used to break ground, turn over the soil, and cut in the rows. The rows are on contour, so they collect and store water in the ground. 
  • The trenches were filled with compost and rich garden soil. A variety of organic amendments were added to the soil.  
  • The weeds were not pulled, but rather were left to be cut and dropped as mulches throughout the year. 
  • Each row is wide enough to hold more than a single row of plants, which means there are half as many walking paths.  This makes good use of the space.
  • Half the garden was planted with seasonal vegetables and the other half was planted with cover crops, mostly nitrogen-fixing legumes. 
  • In one corner, we're making our own compost with kitchen scraps, garden clippings, soiled bedding from the goat stalls, and shredded paper products.
  • And finally, our free range chickens are allowed to run through parts of the garden, eating pests, scratching through cover crops, mulches, and compost, and they leave organic manure behind.
  • Well, one more thing that makes this garden awesome... in the midst of a multi-year drought here in Texas, this garden is watered exclusively with collected rainwater. The system is gravity fed, so no electricity is used and no harsh chemicals are applied. (see our post from 2010, Collecting Rainwater)
Even though I haven't spent enough time in the garden to grow all the produce we wanted this summer, and I didn't even get around to planting all the seeds I bought, I would say that that garden is a huge success. The sustainable solutions, mentioned above, that we applied to this project have all worked out as expected.  

The coolest thing about sustainable gardening, especially here in Texas, where we can grow crops almost year-around, is that there is no beginning and end, it's an ongoing cycle.  As we get into the hottest part of the year, we'll continue to harvest more heat loving beans and others. In mid-late August, we'll sow some fall crops. We'll turn the compost pile and start a new pile with the soiled bedding from the goat stalls.  We'll cut down more cover crop/green manures to feed the chickens and goats and to compost in place.  And on and on...  a veritable food producing machine.

I hope your summer is as exciting as ours.

Oh, and on a different topic, in case you haven't seen it yet, here's our latest video of the livestock guardian dogs.  Oh they are growing!  They love to run through the mud, chase bouncing balls, and chasing each other.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Busy with Early Summer Tasks

With the spring hanging on until May and then the May rains, we have been busy as bees!  Our sustainable projects are moving right along.

Using permaculture concepts and water saving strategies, we planted our vegetable garden in early spring along with lots of cover/green manure crops.  Wow, the garden is growing like crazy now.  We've picked peas, kale, spinach, cucumbers, dill, cilantro, collards, radishes, and other stuff as well.  Some of the radishes bolted already, but that's okay, we've decided we like the spicy, crunchy, green seed pods.

Free Range Chickens, Production Reds

And we aren't the only ones enjoying the fresh organic produce.  Our goats and chickens have had their share as well.  I'm glad we planted lots of cover crops - enough for the animals too. 

Our two baby goats are growing up.  The youngest will need a bottle for another week or so.  They are both so cute.  Still lots of playful running and dancing going on over here. 

Back in April, we brought home two adult goats as well.  Both are also Nubian dairy goats.  They are beautiful animals.  So, we hope to breed them in the fall.  We are looking forward to having baby goats and lots of raw milk.

The two livestock guardian dogs are growing so quickly.  It's hard to remember that even though they are 40 lbs, they are still only 3 months old; they still very immature and full of tail-chasing tomfoolery.  We have started putting them out in the paddock with the goats during the day.  They love having all the room to run and play. 

In the midst of all that, we've also seen lots of wildlife.  Oh the songbirds love the early summer and you can tell by all the songs they sing.  The hummingbirds and butterflies are finding the wildflowers that we seeded earlier this year.  We've seen jackrabbits and cotton tails nibbling the spring greenery.  We spotted two new born baby deer one day and several times we have seen deer in our pastures.  A few foxes have popped out in front of our path. While driving though town one evening we saw a coyote. A pair of hawks have been circling the areas lately.  In the pond, we've seen turtles, dragonflies, and minnows. We've seen a couple of garter snakes crossing the caliche road - one of them right in front of us.  In the evening, we hear frogs and crickets and locusts singing their own version of "love me tender", and it is music to our ears.

All in all, it has been wonderful to experience the change of seasons.  It has been a very busy spring, and I suspect our summer will be just as busy.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Baby Nubian Dairy Goats

Nubian dairy goat kids
2 months old and 2 weeks old
We brought home our first baby goats.  They are so curious and playful.  These doelings (young females) are Nubian dairy goats. They have long pendulous ears and roman shaped noses.  

Here are a few pics and a video too.

Dairy goats can give you fresh milk for making dairy products at home, and that's a sustainable and valuable contribution to the farm.  Baby goats take time and money to raise, but we think it will be worth it to have our own fresh, raw milk, processed in a clean, safe environment from healthy animals.

These have the same sire, but different dams.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Everyone Loves Puppies... or How the Livestock Guardian Pups Stole Our Hearts

Livestock Guardian Dogs

We've known for a while that we wanted to have livestock guardian dogs to grow up with our goats.  Well, we are still trying to acquire some goats, but we finally found our livestock guardian dogs, or puppies, as they were.  Aren't they the cutest things?  

Introducing our pair of ferocious guardians:

Livestock guardian dogs
Female Livestock Guardian Puppy

Great Pyrenees and Anatolian Shepherd crosses.
Male Livestock Guardian Puppy

Okay, maybe they aren't ferocious yet; they are only 6 weeks old, but they will be very soon.

We have some names in mind, but we haven't decided yet.  This is just the preliminary video.  They need a bath and some brushing and then we'll get some better pics.

Questions of cost and sustainability

When running a farm business, we must consider that all inputs must have a valuable contribution to the farm.  With this mindset, it's a good thing my house cats have been with us for so long.  We love 'em, but honestly, they don't contribute much to the bottom line, so we have "grandfathered" them in so they can stay.  But, any new animals brought in must work for their room and board.

So what's sustainable about a dog that will eventually grow to 150-200 lbs?  These two are only 6 weeks old, yet they are already as big as our large adult cat, Mischa (and she's a tank at 13 lbs).  Is it cost effective to have an animal that has it's own food budget?   (much less two of them?)   

Well as with most questions about sustainability, it really depends.  If you have predators in your area and you have small children, then they would be worth their meat budget.  If these dogs soothe your mind about the safety of your baby goats or lambs at night, then they might be worth their meat budget.  If you've lost more than one flock of chickens, can't live without fresh eggs, and don't want to lose another, you might be willing to buy in.  In this part of the Hill Country, we have coyotes, foxes, and even cougars have been sighted recently - and that's a lot to worry about.

These cute little fur-balls will grow up to fend off predators, and they may come in contact with one from time to time, but the idea is that predators will smell these big guys and just stay away.  These livestock guardian dogs will have a valuable contribution to the farm.  There are many gadgets out there that promise to scare away hawks, crows, deer, coyotes, foxes, and other pesky creatures, but people that own livestock guardian dogs say the dogs are the best investment ever made.  Overall, we believe using livestock guardian dogs to patrol and protect is a good way to deter the native wildlife.

These large breed dogs are not for everyone.  These types of dogs are supposed to be left in the barn with the livestock, not cuddled or coddled.  But I have to tell you, it is hard to resist these furry little cuties, and there's already a bet going between our neighbors about when we'll break those rules and bring the dogs in the house.  :)  I'm trying to hold out.  Casey's grip is slipping though....  We'll have to see how it plays out. 

More info about them:
Both are part Great Pyrenees and part Anatolian Shepherd breeds.  As pure breeds, these dogs are great, and they are commonly interbred to produce a dog with great instincts, strong jaws, and a guardian temperament.   They are territorial and loyal to their herd and master.  We have been looking for a long time and we were blessed to find a male and female at the same time, so close in age, with such beautiful qualities. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Hill Country Celebrates Earth Day on April 20th

Earth Day in Hill Country, Riverside Nature Center, Native Plant Society of Texas, Master Naturalists, Kerrville Texas, Texas Hill Country, Sustainable Solutions, Rainwater Harvesting, Monarch Butterflies, Jim Stanley, Susan Sanders, Master gardeners, River Trail Walk, Kids Activities, Expert Speakers, Family Run

On April 20th, the Kerrville Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas along with the Riverside Nature Center will be celebrating Earth Day with a day of events at the Riverside Nature Center. 

We have attended the this event a couple of times in the past, and we plan to be there this year too.  

If you have not been before, you have been missing out.  But now's your chance to join in on the activities, meet the local folks from the native plant society and the master naturalist group.  You'll also get to meet the people that volunteer at the Riverside Nature Center. And most of all, you'll get to see why these folks are celebrating Earth Day.

I'm looking forward to seeing Jim Stanley again. He'll be talking about harvesting rainwater. (You probably know Jim and his wife Priscilla from the local Master Naturalist Group, his volunteer work at the Riverside Nature Center, and his book, "Hill Country Landowner's guide".)    

If you haven't seen the newly constructed River Trail, there will be a guided walk with the RNC founder, Susan Sanders.

Bring the kids, there will be activities scheduled between 9 am and 2:30 pm, including the live butterfly display.

Plus, the event coincides with the Native Plant Sale.  I can't wait to browse and choose some for my hillside.

Hope to see you there.

For more information, check out the website: Riverside Nature Center

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

If you want it to last, build it right!

What happened to the bird feeder?

Earlier this week I shared some videos of our bird feeders, Songbirds in the Garden.  Well, a few days after these videos, we found the feeder on the ground, completely empty.  The lid was bent and the internal side got wet from morning dew.  How disappointing.   So how did this happen?  Well, it's a good thing we had a trail cam watching...

Raccoons and other Wildlife Rascals

Raccoons, opossums, and other wildlife can cause havoc on your bird feeders. Not to mention the damage they can do to your garbage cans and patio furniture.  Several years ago, rodents chewed through pvc pipe to get a drink of water.  And before that, wild feral hogs chewed busted the water faucet spigot and spilled a LOT of water from our tanks. 

While they are rascals, the indigenous animals all have a purpose.  The armadillos eat ants, even the nasty red fire ants.  The opossums and coons eat small snakes, scorpions, and other scary, crawly things.  Foxes and coyotes also eat snakes and they keep the rodent population in check.  So, don't think these rascals need to be eliminated.  They have a job to do.

On the other hand, the feral hogs are not indigenous. They destroy natural habitats as well as agricultural and commercial property and should be eliminated (see previous posts Invasive Species - Feral Hogs.)

How to Keep Wildlife from Ruining Your Day?

If the rascal coons don't get into it, then perhaps the foxes or scrub jays will.  Or heck, the wind and sun will destroy anything left outside for too long. So, we learned that here in the country, we have to "harden" everything.  

  • Bird feeders must be sturdy; 
    • made of metal, not wood or glass.
    • hung on metal pipe or by chain, not wire.
  • Any exposed pipe must be insulated and wrapped.
  • Fences must be made of heavy gauge wire.
  • Tarps are useless in our sun and wind; store valuables in the garage or barn.
  • Plastic pots, buckets, and other do-dads will disintegrate quickly. Buy metal. Store them properly.  Maintain them. 
In every purchase, even when buying bird feeders, we ask ourselves, "Is this going to stand up to the wind, sun, and wildlife?"  Part of our sustainability goals is to invest in systems that will last a long time, maintain themselves or need little maintenance from us, and will accomplish the task at hand.  

Is it sustainable to feed the birds?  

Sure it is.  They provide us with a good trade as we said in the last post Songbirds in the Garden.  However, we are working on planting food crops that will feed them as well as us.  That will be more sustainable than buying bird seed for those hungry little guys and gals.

Is it sustainable to hang bird feeders by wire?  

No, it isn't.  As we've seen the video above, the animals can twist the feeder until the wire bends and breaks.  Replacing bird feeders and bird feeder hangers is NOT sustainable.  I had already replaced wire with chain on several other feeders.  I knew it needed to be done on this one, and now I'm kicking myself for it.  I hope the feeder lid doesn't rust.  

On the flip side - Good news is that it is already rehung and we are capturing more trail cam videos. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Bringing Native Songbirds to Your Garden

Is it a good idea to invite native songbirds to your garden?  

You bet it is!  While most songbirds will eat some of your sowed seeds and seedlings along with some overripe fruits and vegetables, they will also eat a lot of insects.  Also, if they stick around long enough, then whatever they eat, they leave behind a portion of it as fertilizer.  Overall, we think this is a fair trade, so we set bird feeders and bird baths around our garden to attract wildlife.  

Welcoming songbirds into the garden and allowing some areas of your garden to remain wild and weedy really expands the songbirds' natural habitat.  Instead of taking over their areas with our garden, we prefer to overlap our areas with their areas, and that's when we start to benefit from the symbiotic relationships.

To summarize, songbirds remove pests and stop pest cycles, and they naturally fertilize the garden - that's a sustainable way to use nature to your advantage.  And if you find that the songbirds are eating too much of your produce, then just cover that area with netting for a while.  

Finding ways to combine our love for wildlife management and gardening is, as Martha says, a good thing.

We use trail cams to monitor wild bird activity on our property.  These trail cams are automated digital video cameras specifically made for outdoors and used by hunters and bird watchers.  This little piece of equipment gives us a good idea of what songbirds are visiting.  It also gives us a peak at some of the migratory birds that we might not see otherwise.  Of course, not all wild songbirds will visit a feeder, so the birds caught on camera are not the only ones nearby.  They are just the only ones that like the seeds being offered.  Keep in mind, when songbirds have babies to feed, they prefer to hunt for insects, but will still stop by for a free lunch once in a while.

Here are some recent songbird videos.

This feeder is one of feeders right next to the veggie garden. Free lunch for birdies! 

How do others interact with the native wildlife?

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Marburger of Marburger Orchards, located between Kerrville and Fredericksburg, here in the Texas Hill Country. I asked him "how do you keep the wildlife from eating your produce?" He answered, "We can't keep them all out so we plant enough for them too".  Good advice indeed.

Check out this locally owned business to see what's ready for picking and eating.  Right now, big fat juicy strawberries are ready and the peach trees are blooming.  It is worth the trip just to see the lovely peach tree blooms.   

If you scroll to the bottom of  Marburger's web page, you will see a link to sign up for their email newsletter with updates on picking times.