Monthly Archives: March 2014

Spring Cleanup:What should I Do?

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spent iris debris

spent iris debris

Early spring.  It is full of hope and promise.  Birds are returning from their winter homes.  Snowstorms are subsiding. Daytime temperatures are warming.  Greenhouses are filling with plants.  Wishful thinking and daydreams are occupying gardener’s minds.

But as gardeners, we know that one big task is just on the horizon.  In fact, it is THE task that must be done before seeding and transplanting can take place in our garden beds.  And at a glance, we can tell it still needs to be done.  That task is spring cleanup.

What is spring cleanup you ask?  Why it a checklist of outdoor projects that should be completed prior to planting.  Such tasks may include, but not limited to:

  • Raking leaves out of ornamental beds and away from water features
  • Pruning vines such as grapes
  • Removing winter mulch from designated vegetable beds
  • Cleaning up dead plants and leaves from last fall (such as leaves from irises and day lilies)
  • Cutting back spent perennials
  • Removing winter protection from trees and shrubs
  • Pruning dead, damaged, or crossing branches
  • Resetting any plants, edging, or pathway pavers that may have heaved
  • Composting any yard waste that will break down easily such as leaves, straw and/or hay mulch
  • Applying preventative weed treatment to lawns (organic options are available)
  • Repairing any damage to fences, patio furniture, or irrigation
  • Top dress vegetable beds with aged compost
  • Pulling up any early weeds
  • Preparing lawn area if sections need to be reseeded

Now while March is prone to wild mood swings in weather, go out as soon as the snow has melted and the temperatures are tolerable.  Wear a jacket if needed.  If you are waiting for a perfect, 80F day, it may never happen and the next thing you know, it is late May and gardening season has begun without you.  Start now.

leaves from fall

leaves from fall

To keep spring cleanup manageable, focus on one task at a time and see that task through to completion.  If you start with raking, continue until it is all done.  Not only does this give you a sense of accomplishment, but it keeps you from feeling overwhelmed by the checklist of projects if you try to work on multiple tasks at the same time.

Keep an eye on the weather.  It may dictate what tasks you can accomplish on a given day.  If it is windy, skip the raking.  Think of something you could do indoors.  Maybe you could move onto a task  such as sanding the wooden picnic bench and applying a fresh coat of stain within the confines of the garage?

Gather all tools and/or equipment you will need for a project prior to starting the task.  If you are going to cut back perennials, determine what you will need and go get those items.   For example, you may want to gather: gloves, hand pruners, wheel barrow, and perhaps a kneeling pad.

So gardeners, spring cleanup gives you a leg up on the season.  Tasks are completed prior to the hectic time of planting and harvesting.  Prepped yards and garden beds provide a clear view of what else needs to be done, such as replacing plants that did not survive the winter.  And it gets you back into a gardening frame of mind.

 

 

Cheesemakers: Butter Muslin or Cheesecloth?

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Making cheese at home is a wonderful experience.   Right before your eyes you get to see the magic.  Milk converts into curds and whey.  After draining (separating) the curds from the whey, cheese begins to form.  With the right ingredients, time, and a few basic tools, you too can make milk at home.

cheesecloth and butter muslin

cheesecloth and butter muslin

But before you heat up that milk, do you know how you are going to separate the curds from the whey?  Most colanders and metal strainers have holes that are too large and allow some of the curds to slip through.  The end result is that you end up with less cheese than you could have.  The secret is cloth, but depending on the type of cheese you are making, do you know the difference between butter muslin or cheesecloth and when it is appropriate to use one and not the other?

Butter muslin is also a cotton cloth and it has a much finer weave (more threads per square inch compared to standard cheesecloth).  Its main purpose is to catch the curds and allow the whey to drain through.  Specifically, it is used for draining curds of soft cheeses.   Soft cheeses typically have a high moisture content, are usually of a spreadable consistency, and are meant to be eaten fresh rather than aged.  Examples of soft cheese include: Ricotta, Fromage Blanc, Marscapone, Cream Cheese, Paneer, Queso Blanco, and Cottage Cheese.

Cheesecloth as the name implies, is used in cheesemaking.  This cotton fabric has a looser weave than butter muslin.   This material is used to line cheese molds for hard cheeses.  By lining cheese molds, cheesecloth helps wick whey to the drainage holes of the mold.  Hard cheeses typically have a lower moisture content, a much firmer texture that results in serving these cheeses sliced, grated, or in shavings, and they are aged so the flavor profile becomes more complex.  Examples of hard cheeses include: Cheddar, Gouda, Colby, Swiss, and Parmesan.  Cheesecloth may also be used to cover air-drying cheeses (part of the aging process) otherwise known as bandaging developing hard cheeses.   The cloth is used to to help protect the cheese from unwanted mold and bacteria.  This is accomplished by rubbing a fat such as lard or butter over the cheese and then the cheesecloth is applied over it.

left: cheesecloth right: butter muslin

left: cheesecloth right: butter muslin

When it comes to purchasing cheesecloth, please be aware that cheesecloth sold in fabric shops tends to have a very loose weave and is not suitable for cheesemaking.  This fabric will simply allow too many curds to pass through during the draining process.  Instead, purchase cheesecloth labeled specifically for cheesemaking.

So friends, warm up that gallon of milk.  It is time to make cheese and use the correct material.  Butter muslin and cheesecloth can both have a place in your cheesemaking arsenal.

 

 

Benefits of a Chicken Tractor

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Do you have a chicken coop?  Whether you have been keeping chickens for years or are just getting started, most people will  say yes.  (This is definitely the case in urban settings where municipal codes require predator-proof coops as part of their chicken ordinance.)   But if you ask them if they have a chicken tractor, you may get an odd look.

homemade chicken tractor

homemade chicken tractor

What is a chicken tractor you ask?  It is simply a moveable chicken coop that does not have a floor.  A chicken tractor is enclosed so it is predator-proof (typically woven wire over a wooden, metal, or pvc frame) but without a floor.  This allows the chickens to freely graze and scratch.  To make your chickens comfortable, it is easy to set a waterer inside as well as provide a covered nest box(es) at one end… allowing the chickens a private space to lay their eggs. Usually, these are not intended to be permanent housing for your chickens, but temporary.   Some folks use them seasonally while others may use them just for a few days or weeks out of the year.

nest box in chicken tractor

nest box in chicken tractor

Now there are chicken tractors large enough that it requires an actual tractor to move the chicken tractor while others are small enough that one person can easily move this portable coop on their own.  But as the chicken keeper, you can determine the size to suit your needs.  If you are farming or homesteading on 10 acres or more with a large flock, it may make sense to invest in a larger chicken tractor, while those who farm on an acre or less may opt for something they can easily move around by themselves.

secure door and latch on chicken tractor

secure door and latch on chicken tractor

Now while you are not required to have a chicken tractor, there are some benefits to having one that a traditional coop just can’t provide.

Benefits of a Chicken Tractor

  • Chickens can shallow till garden beds
  • Chickens will eat bugs and grubs that overwinter in your garden beds or wherever the tractor moved to
  • Provide natural fertilizer in small quantities (if tractor is moved every 24 hours)
  • Less maintenance than a coop (since it is intended to be moved every day, bedding is not required)
  • Provides a more natural diet for chickens compared to standard layer mash
  • Allows chickens to free-range, but they remain protected from predators
  • Lawn or pasture is not destroyed (taken down to bare dirt) since it is moveable compared to a standard chicken run
  • Desired plants remain safe while chickens ‘free-range’ in the chicken tractor (no more missing tomatoes or devastated herb pots) compared to traditional free-ranging methods

    chicken tractor in use

    chicken tractor in use

Now while a chicken coop will always be part of our urban homestead, the chicken tractor also has a home in our backyard.  If it is solidly built (predator-proof), designed for one (or two people) to easily move it around, it provides benefits that just aren’t capable with a standard coop.   So whether you are an experienced chicken keeper or someone new to this hobby, chicken tractors deserve a place on the modern homestead.