How to save globe artichoke seeds

The time is here to save your globe artichoke seeds!  I’ve shot a video showing how I go about the process, but I’ll go into some detail with photos down below.

If you grow globe artichokes and have wondered about saving your own seeds it is super-duper easy to do.  You only need a few tools that you probably have lying around your house anyway.  So let’s do this!

I first save globe artichoke seeds in 2015.  We had a very hot June that my artichoke plants loved–and they began flowering shortly after the hot spell.  I decided to take a gamble and see if I could produce my own seeds.  Gardening in the Rocky Mountains is always a gamble–cold, hot, snow, drought, hail…we have it all.  But to grow globe artichokes, which are only hardy to Zone 7 (we’re a Zone 4), well, those are a challenge.  It can be done, but it takes more effort than in a warmer climate.  But to save seeds?  That just sounds ridiculous.  But I have now done it twice, and I know the first set were viable because some of the plants I grew last year were started from seeds I saved in 2015.  And I’m fairly confident the seeds I harvested this year are viable as well.  I’ll know soon enough come January.

In order to save the seeds all you have to do is let your artichokes flower.  The bees will help to ensure you produce seeds:

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There are at least 4 bees on this one flower–I have other photos that show 6 or more bees on the same flower–these flowers are quite literally the bees’ knees!

Once they flower, then you just wait.  And wait.  And wait some more.  You have to wait until the flowers dry up on the stalks and then, and only then, may you cut them.  I wait until the last. possible. moment. to make my cut.  Ideally, you want to harvest the dried flowers after a long dry, warm spell.  We had a good one this fall, and right before the weather turned cold and snowy I cut them off.  They look like this:

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The bracts turn tan, the flower petals are still slightly purple.  When dry, the bracts become very sharp–you can see the sharp tips in the above photo.  When removing these bracts to get to the seeds, you’ll want some hand protection.  I prefer leather gloves.

Now comes the fun part–tearing apart the flower head.  It’s like Christmas for seed savers!  Using needle nose pliers, you just rip those bracts right off the flower, working your way inward to the soft, fluffy pappus that is attached to the top of the seed. I think they are very cool:

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I use at least one leather glove on the hand that I use to hold the artichoke, then I use the pliers in the hand without the glove.

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You can see several of the seeds in the middle of this head.  To me, they look like little grey, fat dog ticks.  I know that is really gross, but I’m sure you now have a really good image of what these seeds look like!  There are dozens and dozens of seeds on one artichoke head.

Not all of the seeds will be fully developed.  Some will be small and not viable like the ones shown at the top of this photo:

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When you finish pulling away all the fluff and seeds, you are left with a ‘naked receptacle.’ (I love that term.  It is, by the way, a true botanical description.  I am not making this up.)

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Now you have to separate your pile of seeds from the chaff and fluff and then store them in the fridge until you are ready to plant them.  I put my seeds in old pill bottles with one of those little silica gel packs to absorb moisture.  I’ll dig them out in January when I start seeds in my basement.

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And that, my friends, is how you save globe artichoke seeds.  It’s not complicated.  It is a little time consuming.  I have 3 heads saved from this summer and this photo is of just one of those heads!  It took me about an hour to rip through the head, so I’m saving the others for another day.  As you can see, I will have no shortage of seeds for next year!

Finally, the remaining two heads waiting to be de-seeded and the After Fluff, heading for the compost:

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The crazy food preservation day: How to cold smoke cheese (and almonds)

I nearly worked myself into a frenzy after last night’s post thinking about all the things I need to get done before I leave for an out-of-state conference in just over a week.  There’s so much to do!  But I am happy to say that after a full day in the kitchen, I managed to knock out a lot of the food preservation that needed to happen this weekend.  I smoked a ton of cheese (and almonds!), and shot the video (see below).  I also dealt with all those pears and made some pear preserves.  Sadly, some of the pears were beginning to rot.  The good news in all that, though, is 1) I was actually relieved I didn’t have to deal with the entire lot of pears and 2) the chickens benefited tremendously from eating those rotting pears–they were some happy girls!  I also made some pizza dough (for tomorrow night’s dinner) and garlic scape pesto–to be used on the pizza dough that is tomorrow night’s dinner.  Granted, my feet and legs were achy by the end of the day, and I was so tired that I only ate popcorn for dinner, but it was a very good, productive day at the urban farmstead!

Now, about the cheese and almonds…

If you’ve never smoked your own cheese and almonds, my friends, it is high time you consider doing it.  It’s so easy!

Smoking cheese is done via a cold smoking process, which means you do not add any heat while the cheese is exposed to the smoke, unlike smoking meats which is usually done over heat so that the meat cooks while it smokes.  There are a variety of ways to cold smoke, but I use a 12″ tube smoker that holds wood pellets, and I simply set it on the rack in my BBQ grill.  You can see in the video how easy it is to set up your grill as a smoker.  One thing you have to keep in mind while smoking cheese: outside air temperature–if it is warm, say 80 or 90 degrees F, your cheese will melt.  Smoking cheese is best done on a cool day (40 – 60 degrees is optimal).  Even if it is not hot enough outside to melt your cheese, if it is too warm, all the oils will sweat out of the cheese and pool on the surface of your cheese blocks, similar to how the oil pools on top of your pizza cheese.  This is no bueno.  So only smoke your cheese on a nice, cool day, preferably out of direct sunlight, too (the added heat from the sunlight could cause your cheese to sweat and/or melt).

Smoking cheese takes some time, so allow 4-5 hours for the process.  I typically smoke my cheese for 3-4 hours, and I flip my cheese over halfway through so that the smoke coloration and flavor is evenly distributed on my cheese blocks.  I have been using apple wood as my smoke flavor, but there are lots of options out there: cherry, mesquite, hickory, oak, alder, pecan…the list goes on.  Here are a couple of references that can inform you on which wood you choose: a chart and a blog.

Once your cheese has been smoked, it needs to cure for a few weeks in order to temper the smoked flavor and also to allow it time to work its way deep into the cheese.  In order to do this, and to keep your cheese from spoiling, you’ll need to vacuum pack your cheese.  The vacuum sealer is just one other tool that I use heavily in my food preservation regimen, so if you don’t have one, it’s something to consider.  I only recently–within the last year or two–added a vacuum sealer to my fleet of kitchen tools.  But I love it and I use it regularly.  And if you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles, they aren’t all that expensive, either.

Smoking almonds isn’t quite the process as cheese, because you don’t have to let them cure afterwards–you can pop them right into your mouth once they cool!  Almonds don’t have to be cold smoked, but I do it this way because it makes sense to me to use the smoke as efficiently as possible, and I have the space on my grill to do it.  Before smoking almonds, you will want to soak them for a few minutes in a fairly strong brine solution.  Today I used 3 cups almonds in 3 cups water with 3 teaspoons of salt.  Let the almonds soak for 10 or 15 minutes, then drain the brine and spread the almonds on a baking sheet.  After cold smoking, you will need to put the almonds in a low oven to dry out completely because they will still be damp after smoking (this will make your house smell like smoke a little bit).  In the video I used 250 degrees F, but that wasn’t quite hot enough.  In the past I have used 325 degrees F and that was perfect (I just forgot that today).  Stick the baking sheet in the oven for 10 minutes, then stir the almonds around.  You might hear the skins cracking and popping a bit–it sounds like Rice Krispies once you’ve added the milk–and put them back in the oven for another 10 minutes.  Then remove the almonds from the oven and allow them to cool completely on the baking sheet.  They will continue to crackle and pop while they dry and that is exactly what you want to hear!  Once they are completely cooled you can pop them in your mouth.  To store, put them in an airtight container and keep them at room temperature.  If it is going to be a while before you eat the almonds, you can vacuum seal them to keep them from going stale.

For all the gnarly details on smoking cheese (and almonds!), check out this video:

 

It’s that time of year again—the preservation season is upon us

This is one of the busiest times of the gardening season.  Right now, it is raining/snowing outside and my garden season is essentially over.  What the deer (or my little rascal, MaeBelle) didn’t eat of my tomatoes and other veggies, I have harvested and either eaten or frozen or dried or canned in some form.  In a way, it’s a relief to be finished with my own garden right now so I can focus on other things for a while.  Garlic-planting is still to come—but not until late October.  The summer CSA is still going strong for another 4 weeks, then our fall share will begin immediately afterwards and take us through Thanksgiving—so I’ve still got over 2 full months of fresh produce coming my way.  So between the CSA, what I’ve harvested out of my own garden, and what my neighbors have given me, I’ve been busily preserving all sorts of foods for the past few weeks so I can enjoy them this winter and early next spring.

Since my tomatoes were nearly a complete bust this year I bought a 10 lb box of cherry tomatoes to eat and preserve.

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This is maybe half of the 10 lbs left to eat & preserve–what beautiful little jewels!

I ended up drying 2/3 or more of the tomatoes because I absolutely love dried tomatoes and I use them all winter long for my tomato fix.  And drying tomatoes is so easy AND economical!  I cannot purchase sun-dried tomatoes at the supermarket.  First of all, I don’t really like the oil-packed ones, and secondly, they are insanely expensive.  If you have a food dehydrator (and if you don’t have a food dehydrator, you should seriously consider getting one if you want to preserve food) you can make your own dried tomatoes for pennies compared to those expensive jars in the grocery store.

I simply cut my cherry tomatoes into halves or thirds, depending on how large the tomato was, placed them onto the dehydrator trays, stacked them up (I have 4 trays), placed the lid on top, plugged in the dehydrator, and walked away.

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All cut up and ready to dry, cap’n!
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I’ve had this dehydrator for YEARS, and I love it!  They still make it and it’s very inexpensive.

Some of them dried overnight, others I had to dry a little longer because they were still a little too juicy.  I dry mine until they are leathery, with just a little bit of give to them when you bend them.  Because there is still moisture in the tomato, they are not shelf stable—meaning you can’t store them at room temperature or you risk spoilage via mold and/or bacteria.  So I toss mine into a plastic zippered baggie and store them in the freezer.  When I want to add that little sweet spark of dried tomato to a dish, I just reach into the bag and pull out however many I want.  Easy peasy!  Sometimes I re-hydrate the tomatoes by putting them in a small glass bowl with a little bit of boiling water, sometimes I just chop them up and add them to whatever dish I’m preparing.  It varies depending on the dish and, more often, my mood.  If you preserve no other food in your house, and you like dried tomatoes, you should seriously consider making your own.

For the remaining 1/3 of the tomatoes, some I used to make a balsamic vinegar caramelized onion & cherry tomato conserve a few weeks ago that was beyond words yummy on a slice of bread with some cream cheese.  And I simply ate a ton of them—just popped them in my mouth most of the time, though I did get on a kick of making this awesome cherry tomato, cucumber, mozzarella cheese, basil, and balsamic vinaigrette salad for a week or two.  Sweet, tart, tangy, cheesy, herby—oh, it was so good!  That’s the stuff summer is made of.  I will miss that salad in January, but I know I’ll be able to enjoy it again next summer with fresh, locally grown veggies & herbs…and that the wait will be well worth it (because I know damn well if I make it in January with a cucumber and tomatoes from the supermarket I will hate myself because it will have absolutely no flavor—so no giving in!).

Last weekend I made some plum & blueberry preserves.  This weekend I’ve got several things on my plate.  I need to make some pear preserves with the 10 pounds of pears my neighbor gave me, I need to smoke the backlog of cheese I have in the fridge (this week’s video!), and I need to make garlic scape pesto from those garlic scapes I harvested waaaaaay back in early summer and have been sitting in my fridge, patiently waiting for me to make time for pesto.  It will happen this weekend.  It has to happen this weekend because I’ve got the next 4 or 5 weekends booked up with work, festivals, travel plans, in-laws visiting, (rifle) hunting season beginning, and finishing the fence, among other things.  I also need to render some more lard (more on that in another post) to clean out the freezer in preparation for hunting season—right now, we have no space to put any meat!  But that will have to wait until late October as well.

No rest for the weary this time of year.  But you know what?  When I slather a spoonful of pear preserves onto a biscuit this winter or sprinkle some chopped dried tomatoes on my pizza I’m going to be so glad that I put the time in to preserve this bounty of food that I am incredibly fortunate to have.

More wonders in the garden

Today I noticed a second, astonishing wonder in my garden this year.  The first wonder I noticed several weeks ago–I had a globe artichoke overwinter.  If you are not familiar with the ways of the globe artichoke, allow me to elaborate briefly.  Where I live in Montana, we are a Zone 4.  That means, on average, our lowest winter temperature drops no lower than -30 degrees F.  This year we bottomed out our thermometer at -21.8 degrees F, so I have no idea how cold it really got this year (I think I saw -26 reported for the airport, which is a few hundred feel lower than where I sit).  However, despite the bitter cold (and we had a lot of it this year), we also had a really good snow year.  For about 3 continuous months we had snow on the ground, and a lot of it.  Snow is an excellent insulator, so things that would normally die in the cold can be protected enough with a snow blanket to coax them through a long, bitterly cold winter.  Enter the globe artichoke.  Last fall I dug up several plants, potted them, and tucked them in a corner in the basement.  By overwintering my little babies, I wouldn’t have to start seed in January in order to plant them out in early spring to ‘trick’ them into thinking they had lived through a winter and thus flower (i.e., produce those luscious artichokes) during their first year of life.  For the record, artichokes are perennial plants in warm climates (no colder than Zone 7, which is about 0 degrees F as the average coldest winter temperatures) and they usually do not flower until their second year.  Well, I missed digging up a plant last fall and earlier this spring while removing mulch from the garden beds, I noticed a queer-looking little leaf sticking out of the soil.  “That’s weird,” I thought, “it looks like an artichoke.  Maybe it’s a thistle?”  But it sure didn’t look like a thistle, it looked like an artichoke.  And it was in the bed I had planted artichokes in last year.  Hmmmm……

I watched the strange leaf for a week or so and when new leaves began to appear, it became obvious to me that this was, in fact, an artichoke that survived a bitter cold Montana winter.  HOW COOL IS THAT?!  I yelled to everyone who would listen.  Other garden nerds thought that, indeed, it was pretty cool.  I thought this was the coolest thing in my garden…until today.

Today I was weeding a bed with a bunch of spinach and garlic and I saw this:

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What the…could those really be…?

Now I’m no mushroom expert, but my first thought was, “Those look like morels.”  And then, “That’s crazy talk.”  Fortunately my neighbors, who I know are wild mushroom hunters, were outside in their garden.  I walked across the street.

Me: Hey guys, do you know your mushrooms pretty well?

Neighbor: Well, we know a few edible ones that we hunt for, and a few that you shouldn’t eat.

Me: I have some mushrooms popping up in my garden box and [I was almost too embarrassed to say this] they sort of look like morels.

Neighbor: Well…probably not, but we’ll come take a look.

At this point I am 1) curious as hell to know what these mushrooms are and 2) a little embarrassed to think that I might actually have morels in my garden box.  I mean, c’mon!  I think of them growing in the forest–particularly forests that have recently burned.  Not in a cultivated garden box that housed tomato plants last summer.  Did I confuse them with another mushroom?  Was I a complete and total idiot?  We arrive at the garden box.

Me: See all these coming up around my spinach?

Neighbor: Well I’ll be darned, those are morels!

He plucks a mushroom and turns it over.

Neighbor: There’s another mushroom that looks similar, but that one is detached here at the base (he points to the stem).  These are definitely morels.  Wow!  Where did you get your mulch?

Me: Someone at the gym had some pine needles he was going to set out by the curb and I just happened to overhear him talking about them with another person at the gym.  I asked him if I could have them to use for mulch in the garden.

Neighbor: Wow!  That’s pretty unusual.  Amazing!

Me: Schew!  I thought I was crazy for thinking that they were morels.  Please take as many as you want!

Neighbor: Wow!  Thanks! What an unexpected surprise!  You probably shouldn’t tell any mushroom hunters about these…

Me: Yeah, no kidding!  Some people search high and low for these gems!

My neighbor came back over a few minutes later with a paper bag and cut some mushrooms.  She showed me which ones were the prime ones for eating and which ones were probably too dried out and past their prime.  I am sooooo grateful for them!  I learned something new today about mushrooms!  These neighbors have shared their hard-sought Chanterelles with me in the past, they share garden plants, and garden mulch/compost/soil.  I provide them with eggs, garlic, and now, morels!  We have a pretty nice arrangement, but I always feel like I get the better end of the deal.  I know I shouldn’t feel that way–it’s just farmgal kindness between garden nerds–and gardeners love to share (especially that zucchini)!

I’m not 100% sure the pine needles were the source of the morels.  I have other boxes with the pine mulch and they do not appear to have any mushrooms in them.  I don’t think it was the soil, which is a sheep manure-compost mix I get from a local garden shop.  I don’t think it was the soil the tomatoes were grown in last year–though I should ask the gifter where they got their potting soil, just to be sure.  The pine needles seem the most likely source.  Many of the mushrooms were past their prime, but that means they have already set spores–so I am hoping for more morels to show up next spring!

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Pile of morels

I can’t help but think over and over how special my garden is.  Nature is a wonderful, mysterious force, that’s for sure.  What a neat gift to have these much sought-after mushrooms appear in my garden!!  Secret: I have never eaten morels.  Which makes this all the more special.  I am beyond giddy for tonight’s dinner:  morels and fresh asparagus.  I’ve got plenty of spinach in the garden and eggs, so I’m sure I’ll be able to find a scrumptious way to prepare these ingredients.  I’m going to eat like a queen!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Garden Pop! And…my favorite way to preserve spinach.

I got back from my long and very awesome trip back to the Motherland a little more than a week ago.  One of the first things I noticed when I got home was the lack of snow!  I left the day after a 3 inch snow dump, then there was a 6 inch snowstorm while I was away.  I also saw a fair share of snow along my trip–so I wasn’t expecting to see green grass in the yard and all sorts of things popping up in the garden boxes.  But when I peeled back the thick mulch I put down last fall, there was all sorts of things to be found: baby lettuces EVERYWHERE (they are even popping up in the grass outside the boxes), chives, oregano, garlic, Swiss chard, garlic, Egyptian walking onions, new strawberry leaves, garlic, violets, and spinach. Did I mention the garlic?  Spring has sprung!

Spinach is coming up in four different boxes because last fall, when I let my spinach go to seed, I sprinkled seed all over several boxes so I would have gobs of spinach this spring.  Right now just the long, slender cotyledons are out (some still with the seed coat stuck to the ends) where I tossed out seeds with reckless abandon, but in places where I had spinach plants last fall–and they overwintered–I’ve got tiny, but edible, spinach already!

Why would I want four 8’x4′ garden boxes filled with spinach?  Well, I hope to sell some it to the CSA this year but I also love spinach and I add it to just about everything I eat.  Plus, I can afford to fill four garden boxes with spinach early on because it will be done by early summer and I can plant something else in its place by late June.  I’ll let some plants go to seed, and I’ll get another flush of spinach in the fall.  Then I’ll sprinkle more seed right before I mulch the boxes in late fall so I can do it all over again next year.  I haven’t had to buy spinach seed in years–so that initial packet of seed I bought for a few bucks has paid for itself many times over by now.

You might be thinking, “But all of that spinach is going to mature at once, how are you going to deal with it?” That’s true, it will all mature at once if I don’t cut leaves here and there throughout the spring (which is what I do).  But when it starts to overwhelm me, and I if have no buyers, then I will freeze it.  Spinach freezes incredibly well.  Most sources will tell you to blanch the spinach before you freeze it, but I don’t do that.  I wash the leaves, spin them dry in my salad spinner, chop them roughly and toss ’em right into a zippered freezer bag.  I have blanched my spinach in the past, but it ends up as one huge frozen wad of spinach unless I parse it out into tiny little packages.  I prefer to throw my spinach into a single large bag and I don’t want to hack pieces of the humongous frozen spinach wad when I want to cook with it.  Instead, the leaves stay separated from one another and I can reach into the bag, grab a handful of frozen leaves, and toss them into a soup, casserole, stir fry, bread batter…whatever.  No hacking, AND…no thawing required.  I find the quality of the leaves is just as good, perhaps even BETTER than if I had taken the extra time to blanch before freezing…so it’s not just because I’m lazy when I have tons of spinach to process.  This works well for other leafy greens, too, like Swiss chard, kale, and collard greens.  Just be sure to squeeze most of the air out of the bag each time you open it and the leaves will stay just as beautiful as the day you froze them.  I’m still eating frozen Swiss chard from last summer and it’s still delicious.  Maybe you’ll try this method and like it too!

The mosaic below shows what else is emerging in my garden right now.  I spent last weekend tidying up the garden, turning compost, removing mulch, planting snow peas, and planting out the artichokes I overwintered in the basement (unfortunately the aphids got to most of them so I only had 2 survivors).  This weekend I need to separate the garlic that is coming up and replant individual cloves.  That will be a huge task in and of itself, but it’s now or never if I want decent-sized bulbs this summer!

 

Spring fever is sneaking in

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Spring fever is beginning to hit me.

It’s been so warm here lately.  The snow is melting in town and on the lower trails, which means the mucky-yucky season is just around the corner.  Right now the lower trails near town are ribbons of packed-snow-turned-ice laid out on bare ground that sees a lot of exposure to the sun.  As soon as these ribbons of ice melt, the trails turn into a muddy, mucky madness.  It’s best to just stay off the trails until they dry out because the trails are über slippery and ultimately you end up carrying half the trail home with you on the bottom of your shoes.  Not my favorite season.  Sometimes you get lucky and the higher trails are still in good enough shape for hiking and biking and trail running that you can stay high while the lower trails dry out, but there’s usually a period where you just have to either get muddy or hike elsewhere.  Or do something completely different.

Like read seed catalogs and dream of your garden this summer!!

Today I saw bare patches of earth that have not seen daylight since early December.  The snow has stuck around for a long period this winter due to a colder than normal (or recent memory normal) December/January.  I really have no complaints.  It made for good skiing, the roads in town were snow packed and my studded snow tires got put to good use, and shoveling the sidewalk is good exercise (TRUE farmgal fitness right there! No gym needed.).  Not to mention spending evenings sitting by the wood stove knitting and chatting with the Hubby while MaeBelle lays at my feet, happy that her pack is all in the living room with her.  But seeing these bare patches of earth made me think of spring: new growth marking the re-birth that occurs every year after a long winter.  The wildflowers that dot the hillsides make for incredibly scenic hikes in May and early June–probably my favorite time of year in Helena.  But it also made me think of my garden.  A few of my garden boxes are now exposed after having been hidden under the snow for months.  If this weather keeps up, it won’t be too long before my garlic and rhubarb and oregano start poking their sleepy little heads above ground to soak up some sunlight.

For me, spring is going to come very soon because this farmgal is traveling southward at the end of the month, heading back to the motherland to visit family and do a little bit of consulting work.  I hate flying, and my last experience was so bad with cancelled flights and what-not that I decided this time I’m going to drive.  Yes, it’s 1800 miles ONE-WAY to get to my destination, but I have decided to make a long road trip out of it and visit some friends, colleagues, and nature preserves along the way.  And, this is perhaps what I am most excited about, on my way home I’m going to stop in at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri!  I love their catalogs, their exotic seeds, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to love their farm set up they have in south-central Missouri.  I’m hoping to spend some time walking around their gardens and gorging myself on photography.  I may have to purposely leave my wallet locked in my car so I don’t go completely nuts buying vegetable and flower seeds (“I’ll take one of everything, please.”).  Then, I’ll pay a visit to the Laura Ingall’s Wilder home in Mansfield.  I was a HUGE “Little House on the Prairie” fan when I was growing up, so this will be a treat.

By the time I get back home, spring should be just around the corner and I can start some seeds in my basement for eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and a whole slew of other goodies I want to grow this year.  I’m really hopeful we can get our fence put up this year to keep the deer out of the yard, and I’d love to put up a greenhouse this year (that might be wishful thinking).  I really miss my greenhouse I had when I lived in Arkansas.  That was my happy place.  I could go out, smell the earth, get my hands dirty, and feel complete and total stillness in my life.  I believe playing in the dirt is good for your health, and there’s even scientific evidence to back it up (though any gardener will tell you that gardening is good for your health and well-being).  So will I be able to play in the dirt by the time I get home from my trip?  Outside?  Maybe.  It all depends on how much more snow we get and if the warm weather sticks around.  If nothing else, I can play in the dirt in my basement and tend to some seedlings until I am able to get my hands dirty in my garden.  I’ll take whatever I can get.

 

Caring for Urban Chickens in the Winter

It’s been really cold in Helena lately.  This week we had our second arctic blast of the season–this morning when I checked the thermometer on the back deck, it read -14.9 degrees F.  Brrrr!  When it hits 0 degrees F, we turn on a heat lamp for them.  Most domesticated chicken breeds are pretty cold hardy, and providing too much heat in the winter can supposedly induce molting.  But when it gets below 0 degrees we like to provide a little additional heat to prevent things like frostbite on the comb.  Our Rhode Island Red (Miss Rhodie) is our old gal–she must be 5 or 6 years old now and she no longer lays eggs–and she has lost a few claws from each foot over the years.  During the winters?  I’m not sure.  But it’s plausible.

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When I walk home from work, I can see the red glow of the lamp in the coop.  You can see the silhouettes of a couple of The Girls settling in on the perch for the evening.

I always feel a little bad for The Girls in the winter.  They don’t like the snow (I don’t know that any chickens do) and their run doesn’t get much sunlight in the depths of winter because it is located on the north side of the house.  They spend most of their time in the coop.  Although they don’t like it, they do come out to eat and drink.  We use a large  heated dog bowl in the winter so we don’t have to break ice off their water.  With the recent cold snap we’ve had, even the heated bowl has frost around the rim, but it doesn’t freeze so The Girls have access to water all the time.  Their food and water are located underneath the coop where they can stay out of the snow, but they have to jump from their ramp onto the snow in order to get under the coop.  It’s funny to watch them crouch, hover, and make that leap of faith trying to get under the coop without touching the snow.  Sometimes they jump on top of one another in their comical attempt to avoid the snow.  A couple of The Girls don’t mind the snow too bad, and they will come out to eat scratch and other goodies I bring out for them.  This morning, for example, I gave them some cooked lasagna noodles for a treat.  They love pasta of every kind.  They are spoiled, but they are worth it.

They are especially worth it this winter because they continued to lay eggs all through the month of December…at least some of them.  We got some new breeds this past spring, and they must be more day-neutral (to compare them to onions) than the other breeds we’ve had in the past because we’ve never had chickens lay continuously through the winter–a couple of The Girls took about 3 weeks off during the shortest, darkest days last year.  But this year?  We are swimming in eggs!  It’s been great!  This morning I collected 3 eggs before heading off to work.  When I got home from work there were 2 more eggs in the nest box, but it was so cold that they both froze and split open.  Bummer…

I’m not sure exactly which gals are the laying troopers, but I’m pretty sure the Buff Orpington, the Brahma, and the Silver-laced Wyandotte were involved.  My Ancona and Araucana began laying last week, which is earlier than normal for them.  We specifically don’t put a light in the coop in the winter to promote egg laying–I like to give them a bit of a break if they want to take it.  But some breeds lay year-round, and so I like to reward them with special treats like lasagna noodles.  Why not?

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The Girls have pretty cozy digs to get them through even the coldest Montana winters.