Monday, September 21, 2015

G.R.O.W. Harrisburg: Where It's Been and Where It's Going

Since leaving my full-time job, I've tried to come up with ways to help the farm earn its keep.  Because after all, chicken and rabbit feed isn't free.  The chickens forage during the day, and I only feed them at night.  And, I can put together a decent ration of greens and wild weeds for the rabbits most days, but it's not enough to sustain them.  So, one of the ways I earn extra money is to sell eggs, honey, and garden art.  The eggs I sell on our local online farmer's market called Augusta Locally Grown.  One of the aspects of this organization that I love is it's a non-profit, and a portion of the seller's fee I pay goes to various programs in the area devoted to local food advocacy.  Since becoming a selling farmer on this site, I've become more involved in the non-profit side as well by volunteering.  And one program that really speaks to me and pulls me in as a volunteer is the G.R.O.W. Harrisburg initiative.  The Harrisburg neighborhood is a stone's throw from my house, and it is full of a rich and varied history. 
Harrisburg was once a mill village in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  But, as the mills closed, the neighborhood fell into decline.  And, in recent years it has been a district riddled with crime, drugs, prostitution, and homelessness.  Drive down its streets, and you won't fail to see a burnt out shell of a house.  Enter a vacant house, and you, more times than not, will find evidence of illegal activity.  Convenience stores and fast food restaurants mark the landscape.  So, one can't help but wonder how the lack of quality healthy food plays a role in this environment.  The U.S.D.A. Economic Research Service considers the Harrisburg-West End Historic District a food desert.  It is considered low income and low access as the annual family income is at or below 200 percent of the Federal poverty threshold for family size and the percentage of residents live more than one mile from the nearest supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store.  I live not five minutes from Harrisburg, and yet, not five minutes in the other direction is a collection of grocery stores and thriving economic development.  Harrisburg is so close, yet so far.

But, in 2012, some local medical students from the Medical College of Georgia, St. Luke United Methodist Church, and local farmers set about making a change.  That change was the Veggie Truck Farmers Market.  Augusta Locally Grown was brought on-board to coordinate the farmer's market, and since that time, a small farmer's market has grown into a multi-partner initiative called G.R.O.W. Harrisburg.  Its goal is to help residents learn to grow, cook, and eat real food as a community.  

Food is the starting point of the initiative, but one of the backbones is community and how important it is for the health and well-being of its residents.  I look at my neighborhood as an example.  One thing I love about it is my neighbors.  They are all good salt-of-the-earth kind of people, and we help each other out.  We have each other's phone numbers, and when someone is away for a few days, we tell each other.  We watch out for each other.  Many of my neighbors have lived in this neighborhood for 40+ years, and they tell me stories about when someone had a goat or how their family had chickens growing up.  In my case, farming and food are often conversation starters with someone walking down the street.  "You're the house with the chickens, right?  I can hear your roosters crowing, and it reminds me of my grandmother's house."  or "I love your garden in your front yard.  What kind of vegetables are you growing?"  or "My grand kids are visiting next week.  May I bring them over to see your animals?"  So, it's a slippery slope when neighbors no longer know each other and stop taking care of each other.  The community bond is broken and the moral integrity follows suit.  I can see through my own experiences what makes G.R.O.W. Harrisburg so special.  It's the commonality of food and how it is connecting people, and the more neighbor connections you have, the stronger your neighborhood.     

Kim Hines, the Executive Director of Augusta Locally Grown, sees the future of Harrisburg, not as a food desert, but as a food destination, where residents and outsiders come to buy local seasonal food and G.R.O.W. Harrisburg as a starting block for micro-businesses.  Changing the face of Harrisburg from an outsider's point of view without changing its unique identity and the diversity of its residents is paramount.  With the right education and direction, it can happen.  I think of Detroit as an example. With the crash of the car industry, Detroit became a barren wasteland.  But, local residents are taking it back through food.  PBS's Food Forward episode, "Urban Farming," illustrates this brilliantly.

I am so happy to play a small role as a volunteer, and I leave you with a video that perfectly captures the initiative and its programs.   

Grow where you're planted,


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Take That, ---uckers!

I don't think there is a garden pest I hate worse than the squash vine borer.  For years I've battled them, and I've done everything imaginable to beat them.  But apparently the vine borers at my house aren't reading the same literature I'm reading because they seem immune to every trick in the book.  I was determined to win though, so this year I decided to experiment with row covers and hand pollination.  My plan was to use the row covers and at the first sign of eggs, pull all of the summer squash plants to keep the eggs from hatching and feeding.  At the least, I could break the reproduction cycle and possibly start fresh next year.  No one surrounding me had a garden so I felt safe with this approach.  Each morning I marched myself out to the garden, uncovered everything, hand pollinated, and then covered it again. You may think to yourself, "Why go to so much trouble?  It's just squash."  Well, I'm a sore loser and very stubborn.  And, it is so disheartening to see beautifully healthy squash plants die before they can even produce any squash. 

My row covers worked, and I was victorious!  I grew zucchinis organically for the first time ever.  Had I known I would succeed, I would have planted yellow squash as well.  Unfortunately the row cover was a cheap Ikea window panel I had on hand.  Eventually the plants outgrew the area the panel could cover and I managed to rip quite a few holes in it, so I had to discard them after a few months.  And, I saw a few borers on the plants after I removed the covers, so I wasn't 100% successful.  But, I got squash for two months or so and I consider that a win.  I'll have to do something better for next year in terms of a row cover, but I'm encouraged.     

And, not only did I get zucchini, but just last week I noticed these sweet babies interspersed in my butternut squash bed.  It must be a volunteer from last year.  It's a zucchino rampicante, also know as a trombone squash.  It's supposed to be vine borer resistant, but it isn't in my garden.  I'm thinking maybe a seed I planted didn't germinate until now.  Who knows?  I'm hoping to harvest a few of these before it gets too cold, and I think I've passed the vine borer season at this point in the year.

Happy that we were getting squash daily, I was crowing about my victory one day on Facebook.  A friend of mine who produces an Earth-friendly video series for the local magazine asked if he could film a video on my battle.  And, being the introvert I am, I agreed.  I actually am an introvert, so this was incredibly out of character for me.  Regardless, here I am in all of my glory!   

Happy homesteading,


Monday, September 14, 2015

The Unknown Path

For the last five years you've known me as The Weekend Homesteader.  I worked full-time, and projects on my urban farm were completed as time allowed.  But even before I started my blog, I was building a farm on a part-time hobby basis.  Some raised beds were joined by edible landscaping in the forms of fruit trees, berry brambles, and fruit bushes.  Next came just two chicks, which turned into upwards of 25 at one point.  Angora rabbits were transitioned to meat rabbits.  Along came honey bees and ducks.  More and bigger animal housing and a greenhouse made an appearance.  I named my farm Bottle Tree Farm and gave it a logo.  All of this was done part-time while I worked to pay the mortgage.  And, over the years, it changed me and fulfilled me in ways my daytime job could not.

So today, I have a confession to make.  About a year and a half ago, I left my job.  It was the toughest and scariest decision I think I've ever made.  Those who know me personally know of this decision.  Some thought me foolish because I left a wonderful work environment, a steady income, and excellent benefits.  Others thought me courageous because I was stepping off the deep end into the unknown.  And, perhaps I was a little of both.  All I knew was that I just needed a break to explore other options.  I was fortunate enough to have a husband who supported my decision and a bare bones lifestyle that doesn't need six figures to keep it going.  I haven't felt comfortable discussing this publicly until now as this path I'm on is unknown, and it's a path I felt was mine to walk privately for a time so I could feel my way.

I knew I didn't want to walk privately forever though, as I hope my decision will inspire someone out there to take that first step to making a change from a lifestyle that doesn't suit you anymore.  I'm not saying run out and quit your job tomorrow, but put a plan on paper, set some goals, and make some decisions that put you on your unknown path.  You never know where it may lead you.  My path may lead me back into the workforce, and I'm fine with that.  But it may also lead me to places I never imagined. 

With that, I leave you with a favorite poem of mine by Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Happy homesteading,


Saturday, April 18, 2015

And...... We're Back To Cages

As you know I recently decided to move my does to our barn, which is really just a series of 4 enclosed stalls.  You can read about it here.

About two weeks ago, Bunny gave birth to eight beautiful kits, finishing out my kindling for the time being.  At the time, I had 9 four week old kits with Zelda, 9 two week old kits with Mimi, and Bunny's newborn kits.  One day last week something told me to go check on everyone, so I started with Bunny's stall.  As you can see, she has a fabulous covered nest box with a hinged door.  She built a beautiful nest and things were going swimmingly.

When I lifted up the door, this is what I found, a big fat beautiful black rat snake.

It was coiled around the nest.  I freaked!  I ran and grabbed a rake and poked at it until it slid to the back of the nest where it is in the photo.  I started frantically pulling back fur to find babies.  I only found four of the eight.  There were three days' old and the perfect size for snake snacking.  One of them was slimy as if the snake had started eating it but spit it out.  Everyone was gathered and put in a nest box and along with Bunny, put in a cage.

I then went to Mimi's cage to gather her two week old kits, and they were not in their kennel.  I think I almost had a heart attack.  But, I pulled the kennel away from the wall and they were all piled up atop one another asleep behind the kennel.  I gathered them and Mimi and also put them in a cage. At two weeks' old, they were still a great size for a snake to tackle.

Even though Zelda's babies were four weeks old, I put them and Zelda in a cage as well, just to be safe.

My nerves were shot by then, and even though I knew it was non-venomous, I didn't want to tackle capturing the snake by myself.  Neither my husband nor my neighbor were home, so I let it hang out where it was.  If I were a drinking person, a good stiff one would have been next on the agenda.

I wiped off the kit that was slimy and I worried that moving Bunny and her nest would confuse her and maybe she would not know where her kits were.  Fortunately I had some of her fur saved from her last litter, so I lined the nest with it and covered the kits.  The next day I saw her feeding the kits so I knew she knew where they were; however, the one kit did not look like it had eaten.  So I took it out of the cage along with Bunny and held her while it nursed.  I did this for a few days to make sure it was eating.  It is growing so I know it's being fed, but it's not growing at the rate of the other ones. Honestly I don't know if it was a runt to start with or if maybe the snake damaged it in some way, but it is active and its eyes opened on schedule.

We've had several cool, rainy days lately and a few mornings ago, I went out to feed and water everyone and it was on the cage floor, out of the nest box, barely moving, likely dying from hypothermia.  I brought it inside and warmed it up and put it back in the nest box.  I checked on it later and it was warm and snuggled up with its litter mate.  It was probably still attached to Bunny when she finished feeding and got pulled out of the box with her.  I will give it credit; it's a survivor!

They should hit two weeks' old in a few days, and at that point, they will start to munch on hay and get their legs under them.  I'll be curious to see how it progresses from there.

So, back to the snake.  It hung around the stall for a while and left at some point.  I'm sure it didn't go far being weighted down with rabbit kits.  Non-venomous snakes serve a valuable role in our eco-system.  They provide rodent control and protect their territory from venomous snakes.  I would never kill a non-venomous snake.  In this situation, I have only myself to blame.  I set up a perfect buffet for that snake.  Because my stalls are predator proof in terms of raccoons and opposums, I never imagined a snake causing havoc, even though it makes perfect sense.  I know we have snakes as I see them every year and occasionally they eat some of my eggs.

So for the last week, I've been very diligent about collecting eggs as soon as possible.  And low and behold, I went to put up the chickens one evening and found a grey rat snake in the chicken coop.  It had indulged on one of my eggs, so Nate loaded it up in the truck and took it down to the canal and released it.  I hated relocating it but I also don't want it eating all of my eggs.  I'm sure the black rat snake is still around so I know we still have a snake coverage.

Zelda's babies just hit six weeks and have pretty good size to them now, so I plan to move them and Zelda back to one of the stalls once it stops raining non-stop.  And, I'll do the same with each subsequent litter until I figure out how to snake-proof the stalls.  I won't be breeding again until the fall so I have some time to work on it.

Happy homesteading,


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Try, Try, Try Again

We've kept bees for several years now, but only one hive.  For some reason, keeping a second successful hive eludes us.  Our one hive really thrives.  It is so strong that during the ice storm last year a limb fell on it and blew it apart.  We found it lying on the ground in pieces with a cluster in one of the boxes.  We put it back together and expected the worst.  Not only did it survive, but we harvested honey all summer from it.

Apparently even an ice storm can't take down our one hive, but when we try for a second one, it fails, every time. We've bought packages of bees more than once, replaced queens, caught swarms, you name it, we've tried it with the exception of splitting our hive.  So, this year I decided to try splitting our hive.  Why would I keep trying to have a second hive after so many failed attempts?  Well, I'm as stubborn as a mule and a sore loser.  You can ask my husband.

Splitting the hive means basically that.  You try to divide the population and put one half in another hive.  It's a man-made swarm.  As the population builds up in the hive, it becomes crowded which triggers a swarm, which is a natural split.  When bees swarm, the mother queen leaves with a portion of the population, and the newly emerged queen stays and takes over the hive.  With it being early spring, I knew they were building up for a swarm soon so I decided to try to beat them to the punch.  So a few weeks ago, a friend came over to help me.

The goal is to take frames of brood that have all stages of development, eggs, larvae, and capped brood as well as cells of pollen and honey and move them to a new hive.  You replace the frames you take from the original hive with empty frames so the queen has room to lay more eggs.  It's great if you can find your queen in the original hive as you can make sure she stays where she is, but if you can't find your queen, you can either let each new colony make a queen, which they will naturally do in the absence of one or you can add a queen.  Since I have failed so many times I decided not to spend anymore money and to let nature take its course and let each hive rear a queen if there wasn't one.  A few of the frames had queen cells so we left them on the off chance that a queen wasn't present.  There was capped honey already in the hive so we gave each hive a frame or two of honey to help feed them while they transitioned.  We also made sure each hive had approximately the same amount of bees.  Of course, the foragers that were out foraging were going to come back to the original hive.  But, we were hoping any foragers that got dumped in the new hive would reorient themselves and stay with the new hive. Often beekeepers move the new hive several miles away so the foragers in the new hive have to reorient themselves, but I really didn't have the means to do that, so I took a chance.

The original hive recovered quickly and even swarmed about a week ago.  I imagine our original queen was left in that hive and one of the queen cells we left as a safety precaution hatched so it swarmed.  I'm fine with that because it's still a really strong hive.  Well, low and behold, I went out to observe yesterday and saw bees bringing in pollen on the split hive.  This video shows foragers coming in and going out.  It's still a weak hive as it had to rear a queen and has to build up its population, but I'm encouraged!  


Please wish me luck!

Happy homesteading,


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

By the Phase of the Moon

I seem to be writing more about the rabbits than anything else lately although I do have other things happening.  I suppose the reason is because I have been giving them more attention than I normally do in terms of bettering my rabbitry and getting better breeding results.  Several months ago I came across the practice of breeding by the phases of the moon.  And it started with this blog post.

I was tired of trying to get my does in the mood as they never seemed to want to lift for my bucks, no matter who I paired with whom.  So, I decided to try this idea of breeding by the moon cycle.  The first full moon for me at that point was February 2nd.  I put Zelda in with Buck Nasty, and she immediately lifted.  I've never had a doe lift so quickly.  And she lifted for him several times.  Today she is the mama of a beautiful litter of nine kits.  Now according to legend since I bred her on the full moon, she should have more bucks than does in her litter.  


The new moon was on February 18th, so I decided to breed Mimi on this day.  She also immediately lifted and Jack was able to get more than one fall off.  She gave birth several days ago and built one of the prettiest nests I've ever seen.  Because they are tucked in the back of the dog crate I haven't counted them yet.  But when I stick my hand down in the crate I can feel the warmth radiating off them and when I lift the fur, they pop up and down like popcorn kernels, so I know they are okay. Since she was bred on the new moon, she should have more does in her litter.    

My last breeding was Bunny on the full moon of March 4th.  She didn't lift immediately but she did lift and she tends to be slightly stubborn so we'll see what happens with her.  She is due starting next week.  

I do know when I see a full moon, but other than that, I'm not one who can tell the difference between a waning or waxing moon or even know when there's a new moon, so I've been using the Farmers' Almanac website to schedule my breedings.

Now, if you really want to get crazy and even determine the quality of your bucks and does, you can breed based on the moon phases combined with the zodiac calendar.  This post does a great job of explaining that.

So here is to some successful breeding by the phase of the moon.  

Happy homesteading,



Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Transitioning the Rabbits

For a few years I've been curious about raising rabbits in a colony situation versus keeping them in cages.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, but the biggest advantage of a colony situation is that it mimics nature and this is what interests me the most.  I want my animals to be the happiest they can be, and while I give each rabbit time to exercise and frolic in a run, I imagine they would be happier to be able to do that 24/7 without my moving them back and forth from an exercise run to their cage.


About a year ago, we finished what I call the barn.  It's a four stall building and I reserved the first three stalls for rabbit grow-outs.  When I didn't have any litters in them they sat empty, and I wondered what sense did that make?  Why not let my does live in the stalls and give birth to their litters there?  Their litters are going to end up there anyway.  The does will naturally wean them when the time is right.  Plus, if I decide to keep a doe from a litter, it already gets along with its mother and they could live together as a colony would.  Since I only have three stalls at the moment, two of my rabbits are still in cages and I move them back and forth to the run as usual.  Ultimately I would love a series of stalls along the back privacy fence seen in the top left of the photo.  Most people who raise colonies keep their bucks separate so they can control breeding, and this is what I've decided to do as well.  So in the three stalls, I have a doe, a buck and a doe.  The buck can socialize through the wire with both does but he can't mate with them unless I let him.

This is Jack in the middle stall.  He's such a sweet and handsome boy!



Mimi is on one side of him.  She is due to kindle any day now so I've given her a large dog crate stuffed with hay so she can make a nest when the time comes.

And Bunny is on the other side of Jack.  You can see her peaking out of her burrow.  I am pretty stoked because I was able to re-use the door of our chicken tractor to create this burrow.  It still had the hinges on it and the latch so all Nate had to do is screw it to the wall.  Now I can lift the top and latch it to the wall when I need to check her litter. Plus the burrow will give her an extra shady place to relax during the summer.  I would love to do this to all of the stalls eventually but for now Bunny gets to test it for me.  She has already moved some dirt around in there but she can't go too deep because I have chicken wire lining the ground to keep the rabbits in and predators out.

They all look pretty happy, don't you thing?

Happy homesteading,