Friday, May 22, 2009

Tour of Polyface Farms

Last week, I visited Polyface Farms in Swope, Virginia. I wanted to pick up some rabbits for breeding stock and tour the farm. It was broiler day at Polyface and they were butchering 700 chickens! It was an impressive, efficient, and thorough operation. I picked up some great techniques for processing my chickens. Sheri showed me how they eviscerate the chickens, which was a much cleaner and quicker process than I had been taught. They invited me to help, and after working on a dozen chickens, I had the process down smoothly. That knowledge alone was worth the drive, and I am very thankful to Sheri.

Matt took time out of his busy day to show me around the farm also. First we went to the Raken house. Here the chickens and rabbits are housed together in a shed, with the rabbits in elevated cages and the chickens free ranging below. The rabbit droppings falls on the floor and the chickens scratch through it for nutrients. Chicken and rabbit droppings get mixed in the bedding material by the chickens' scratching making great compost. I would love to implement this concept as a winter house for the chickens and rabbits. I could set up a portable hoophouse over our garden. In the spring, the compost could be mixed into the soil to improve the less than ideal soil I have now.

While in the Raken house, we picked a 12 week old buck to start my breeding program. He will be ready to breed between 22 - 25 weeks. Their rabbits have been line bred for 25 years and are a cross between New Zealand White and Californians. They have selected stock that yields good litters (6 - 9 per litter) and high meat to feed ratio. Their colors bear little resemblance to the former breeds.

I also picked out two 12 week old does. They will be ready to breed at 18 weeks.

While in the hutches, they are free fed rabbit pellets from a local mill and fresh greens daily. Since they will be ready to breed soon, I will leave them in the hutches for now.

Rabbit pen in field.

Jorene's Budget Garden and Top 10 Budget Gardening Tips

As many gardeners know, it is very easy to get caught up in the excitement of purchasing plants and perennials; this euphoria often fades when the credit card bill arrives in the mail. However, there are many ways to keep the thrill going all season long at little or no cost. Below, I will describe the plants that I used in the Budget Garden beds that I created along with my best tips for having spectacular plant and perennials beds on a small budget.

I recently planted 2 large beds at the front gates of The Ponderosa Lodge. They are filled with shrubs and plants, most of which are deer resistant, fast growers, long blooming, and can tolerate heat and neglect. The total cost to create and fill both beds was approximately $50, including mulch and edging materials. While the beds do not look like much now, they should (with a little bit of luck) fill out quite nicely by next summer.

The Budget Garden includes 6 Itea Virginica Little Henry (Sweetspire) shrubs. I purchased Sweetspire via a nursery listed on Ebay--a great resource for finding good deals on plants. They arrived in good condition and will hopefully fill in the back of the bed by the end of next fall. Sweetspire has a compact, low-mounding growth habit, reaching 2-3 feet tall, and is covered with sweetly scented, pristine-white flowers that shoot off like sparklers in the late spring/early summer garden. I chose Sweetspire, in part, because I wanted a shrub that would not grow taller than the lettering on our business sign. However, it is also a great choice for underneath a window. It is deer resistant but at the same time attracts butterflies. It is also a real show stopper in fall, when its leaves change color from green to flaming-red. Sweetspire holds its leaves longer than burning bush and many other shrubs in the fall landscape. It grows in zones 5-9 under all sun/shade conditions, and it will stand up to drought. As such, it has truly earned its reputation as the "anywhere shrub."

The Budget Garden also includes many unidentified light, medium, and dark green hostas. The hosta (or funkia, plantain lily) grows in zones 3-8. Its bloom contains lavender or white flowers on tall stems during a few weeks in mid-summer. It is native to East Asia and contains lush foliage in varying heights, textures, sizes, and colors, including white, yellow, green, blue, and mixes of all of the above. Some of the hostas in the Budget Garden were on the property of The Ponderosa Lodge when we purchased it, and we merely transferred them to this spot. We also received a few more as gifts from our close friends Mac and Dee McCutcheon. Their hosta bed was overgrown with plants, so they gave us the extras. Hostas usually get bigger and bigger each year, and they can be divided and replanted elsewhere when they have overgrown the space in which they are contained.

I also placed some unidentified liriope in front of the hostas in the Budget Garden. This liriope was already in the front flower bed of my Fairlington Village townhouse in Arlington, Virginia, when I purchased it in 2002. It is the only slow grower of all of the plants that I placed in the Budget Garden. However, it was starting to take over a bit by spring 2009, so I moved some of the liriope to the Budget Garden. Similar to Sweetspire, it thrives in a wide range of conditions from dry shade to full sun and in zones 5-10. It is a short plant reaching approximately 12" high, and it has blue or purple flowers throughout most of the summer. Finally, liriope is deer resistant which is great for life in the mountains of southern West Virginia.

The Budget Garden also contains Convallaria Majalis (Lily of the Valley). I purchased 10 starters from Lowe's for less than $1 a piece. They were placed in the ground a few weeks ago but have yet to peak out above the mulch. I also purchased 5 full grown starters for $5 from another home gardener I located on craigslist who lives in Alexandria, VA. Lily of the Valley forms a fast-spreading carpet of graceful, 8" leaves. In mid-spring, it bursts into a hypnotically sweet-smelling shower of tiny bell flowers 6-12" tall. Lily of the Valley grows in zones 3-9 and in part to full shade. Like the lamb's ear described below, it multiples fairly rapidly from underground stems, so it should be planted in an area where it has room to grow.

Finally, the Budget Garden contains Stachy's Lanata (lamb's ear) that was on the property of The Ponderosa Lodge when we purchased it, and we merely transferred it to this spot. Lamb's ear is unique in the garden landscape as it is grown for its silvery, wonderfully soft, velvety foliage. It is deer resistant and grows in zones 4-8. Lamb's ear is a short plant reaching approximately 10" high, and it requires nearly full sun which is why we placed it in the very front of the bed. It has lavender flowers in the summer. Lamb's ear spreads rapidly and can become somewhat invasive over time. In fact, I used to hate it until I realized that I could just chop it up and move it all over the property or give it away to friends and visitors to the lodge who like it. However, because of its invasive nature, it is best to plant it in an area where it has room to grow.

We received the wood chipping mulch contained in the Budget Garden for free from a log building company located just a few miles from the lodge. Ken purchased the edging at Lowe's for less than $20.

My Top 10 Budget Gardening Tips include the following:

1) Look around your home and yard to see what you already have. Are some of your plants overgrown? Can they be transplanted to a different area rather than dug up and thrown in the garbage heap?

2) Let your friends, family, church members, etc. know that you will clean/thin out their flower beds for free if you can keep what you dig up. Many elderly, temporarily sick/bedridden individuals, and even busy young families enjoy their plants and flowers but do not have the time or physical ability to take care of them. Some people just do not like the work involved in thinning out a bed; they just want to see the final product of the beautiful plants and flowers. Many perennials such as daffodils and irises will not bloom when they are overgrown, so by cleaning and thinning out flower beds, you help them and yourself.

3) Place an ad in craigslist or in a local public place stating that you will clean/thin out flower beds for free if you can keep what you dig up.

4) Purchase items off craigslist. It's almost always less than half of what you would expect to pay at Lowe's, Home Depot, or a local gardening center. Additionally, home gardeners often have unique items that you cannot find at the big box stores or a local gardening center. It is also a great way to meet people in your area who have the same interest that you do.

5) Purchase items from reputable sellers on Ebay.

6) Wait for plants and perennials to go on clearance at Lowe's, Home Depot, or the like. They usually do. You can easily save 50-75% by waiting a few weeks, and most of the time, the plants will survive with a little water and TLC. If they do not, these stores usually have some sort of guarantee, so you can not lose either way.

7) Buy from your favorite gardening catalogs and websites after they have placed their plants and perennials on clearance. They generally always have coupons and rebates such as take $10 off an order of $40 or more.

8) Keep a shovel or small spade in your automobile, and dig up plants and flowers on the side of old country roads. A friend of mine recently told me that she also digs up bulbs on the sides of highways if she knows that they are about to be plowed under by the DOT.

9) Join Garden Web. Members on Garden Web will often trade plants and perennials or even send them to you in exchange for the cost of postage, especially if they know that you are a newbie who is excited about getting started in gardening.

10) Trade with friends, co-workers, or acquaintances who like to garden. . .


11) Let your family know that plants and flowers and gift certificates to your favorite gardening store make great Christmas presents.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

First litter of Bunnies born on the farm!

Cocoa, our doe, gave birth to her first litter of baby bunnies at the farm. Three baby bunnies were born during Tuesday evening and early Wednesday morning. I noticed the first baby when I was shutting up the chickens Tuesday evening. The mother and her baby were outside of their nest box in the pen. I thought Cocoa might have had the baby there, so I just put the baby in the nest box. It had a small lip on the doorway which I thought was high enough to prevent the babies from leaving the nest box. The next morning, I saw that Cocoa had delivered two more bunnies, for a litter of three. Unfortunately, one of the babies had gotten out of the next box, and its tiny head was stuck in the wire sides of the pen. I lost that one due to the inefficient nest box. So, I put another 1" strip of wood across the door of the nest box and checked on the other 2 baby bunnies. They were healthy and hiding under the belly fur that Cocoa had lined the box with to keep them warm.

Since then, I have not seen any baby bunnies out of the nest box. The two baby bunnies are three days old now; they are hairless and still have their eyes shut. As you can see from the above picture, they have started to develop some fur, (the baby bunny is also covered in the belly fur from Cocoa, the mother). They will not open their eyes for another week. It is tough to lose one baby, but that is why I started small with the new animals. No matter how much I read about farming animals, I find that the best teacher is experience.

This photograph is one of the rabbits from Cocoa's first litter. They are now 8 weeks old. I still have them in the hutch, but they get all the fresh greens they can eat along with their pellets. I hope to finish constructing the rabbit tractor soon so that I can relocate them to the farm fields. The rabbits from Cocoa's first litter should be ready to butcher by week 12 and will weigh around 8 - 9 pounds at that time.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Baby Chicks!

The first of our baby chicks arrived this weekend. We ordered 8 Cornish Cross and 6 New Jersey Giants. The Cornish Cross we will raise as broilers, for about 7 weeks. The New Jersey Giants will go in a mobile pen (chicken tractor) to weed our garden. Later, I will replace some of our non-producing hens with these new hens.

The Cornish Cross is a fast developing, broad breasted meat type chicken. It is the standard meat bird and grows fast, ready to dress in seven weeks or sooner. The New Jersey Giant is a dual-purpose bird. It is a good egg layer and also averages 10 lbs., making it a good meat bird.

I culled the hens yesterday. To check for good layers, you hold the hen by her legs and feel for the pubic bones. In a good layer, you should be able to get 2 fingers between her pubic bones. Out of 28, I have 1 Barred Rock that has never laid an egg and three other hens that are not as good as I might like. The 1 hen we will butcher soon while the other 3 I will check again early in the summer.

Liam and me picking out our chicks.

I want that one Daddy!

Putting the chicks in our brooder box.

Keeping warm under the heat lamp. The white chicks are the Cornish Cross
and the black are the New Jersey Giants.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Jorene's Shade Garden

When we first moved to The Ponderosa Lodge, the shade bed contained several very small rhododendron maximums, two day lilies, and a hosta that were covered with deer netting. The rhododendron maximum is a shrub of the heath family and may be recognized by its large, dark evergreen leaves and delicate pale pink or white blooms. It is the state flower of West Virginia and grows wild in the woods near The Ponderosa Lodge, often to heights of 6 feet or more.

During the first year at The Ponderosa Lodge, we removed the rhododendrons and transferred them to a hill out by the front gate. Slowly but surely, we have been transforming the area into a true shade garden. The items that are currently in the shade garden have been given to us by friends and repeat visitors to the lodge. We have also purchased them at Lowes Garden Center, in small catalogs such as Blue Stone Perennials, and at other specialty garden centers.

Our shade garden includes nearly every shape, size and color of mature hosta, including blue angel, frances williams, guacamole, middle ridge, patriot, great expectations, and august moon. The hosta (or funkia, plantain lily) grows in zones 3-8. Its bloom contains lavender or white flowers on tall stems during a few weeks in mid-summer. It is native to East Asia and contains lush foliage in varying heights, textures, sizes, and colors, including white, yellow, green, blue, and mixes of all of the above. Many of the hostas were on the property of The Ponderosa Lodge when we purchased it, and we merely transferred them to this spot, where they have thrived. We also received many as gifts from our close friends Mac and Dee McCutcheon. Our favorite hostas are a few true miniatures that we received from the Harris family. We have never seen them sold commercially, and they hold a spot of honor in the very front of the bed.

The shade garden also includes various perennial flowers. We purchased dicentra spectabilis (old fashioned bleeding heart) and clematis from Blue Stone Perennials. We planted dicentra spectabilis in Fall 2007, and it has already grown to nearly two feet tall. Dicentra spectabilis grows in zones 3-8, and it is deer resistant which is great for life in these mountains. It has pendulous pink flowers on slender stems that grow from clumps of fern-like foliate in the spring.

We purchased and planted clematis crystal fountain and multi-blue in Spring 2009. Clematis are prized for their incredible flowers; most are as large as your hand. Crystal fountain has lilac blue 4-5" double flowers with fountain-like centers. It blooms June to September, but unfortunately it does not appear that it will survive the transplant. Multi-blue has very dark blue to purple 4-5" flowers with thistle-like pronounced centers of yellow green. It blooms in June, July, and September.

We purchased aquilegia (columbine) from Lowes and a specialty garden center, and we have planted them at different times over the past two years (Spring 2008 and 2009). We also planted some by seed. Our most recent additions have been two pink and yellow winky aquilegia and two white ones from Lowes. Aquilegia grows in zones 3-8. It is deer resistant, and comes in a wide variety of colors. Aquilegia grows to 18 inches tall, and it is graceful, with blue-green foliage. It contains a wealth of flowers in sun or shade. It self-sows without overtaking other plants and yields interesting hybrids if near other aquilegia to cross pollinate. It blooms mid-Spring to mid-Summer.

We purchased several Lamium 'lemon frost' (lemon frost dead nettle) from Lowes, and planted them in Spring 2009. It grows in zones 3-8, is deer resistant, and will grow to 12" tall. Lamium 'lemon frost' is a nice contrast plant in the shade garden because it has yellow green leaves and dark, bright pink flowers which bloom in the summer.

I do not remember where we purchased astilbe or when we planted it. Astilbe grows in zones 4-8. It is deer resistant and blooms in Summer. Astilbe produces airy plumes that come in a variety of shades of pink, peach, and white. It lends a refined grace to perennial borders. Its lush deeply cut foliage is attractive for the entire growing season and is colored from green to bronze.

During Fall 2007 and 2008, I dug up two different kinds of fern from the woods surrounding The Ponderosa Lodge and transplanted them to the shade garden. One has thick, dark green, waxy foliage. The other is a lacy, light green fern. They both appear to be holding their own in the shade garden. I recently purchased Japanese painted fern (Athyrium N. Pictum) an ostrich fern to plant in the shade garden. Japanese painted fern has colorful fronds of grey-green blended with wine red. It has lacy leaves that are wide and taper to a delicate point. Ostrich fern has large green fronds that can grow to 4' tall, and is very useful to use in gardens for added height and interest.

We purchased helleborus in Spring 2007 at The Biltmore Estates in Asheville, North Carolina. Helloborus grows in zones 4-8. It is deer resistant and grows to less than 12" tall. It signals spring in the shade garden because it is always the first to bloom and holds its blooms for weeks. It contains short, waxy, dark green leaves. Helloborus can be purchased commercially in a wide variety of colors, including the black ones that we have. These plants are also very special to us because they remind us of the last "road trip" we took with Miss Lucie, our English Bulldog who passed away May 2008.

My future plans for the shade garden include removing several of the solid green hostas to transplant to two flower beds that I am making at the front gates. I will also transplant several of the patriot hostas (which are green with white edges) to the beds located along the front of The Ponderosa Lodge. Eventually, I will transplant most of the pink and white flowers, including the dicentra spectabilis, columbine, Lamium 'lemon frost,' and astilbe, to the far side of the The Ponderosa Lodge after we have the gutters located there repaired. I plan to add ostrich fern, a ground cover, and rudbeckia goldsturm (black-eyed Susan) to the shade garden during this growing season to add height, color and interest to the shade garden. Rudbeckia goldsturm grows in zones 3-9, is deer resistant, and grows very easily without any special attention. It grows to approximately two feet tall and has mounds of yellow flowers with a brown center. It blooms from mid-Summer to Fall. I have a number of these perennials throughout the property that I will simply transfer to the shade garden later this year. Essentially, I would like the shade garden to have more height in the back and throughout the middle. I would also like it to contain mainly yellow, green and blue hostas, ferns, and a few varieties of perennials that bloom long lasting purple and yellow flowers. As a final note, the above photograph was taken April 2009. We live in zone 5, so the perennials and plants were just starting to peek out of the ground.