Monday, March 31, 2014

Mindful Monday: Plants for Pollinators

It's Spring!  Well, according to the human calendar it is.  Mother Nature, as she is likely to do, has been showing us that we don't dictate when one season ends and another begins.  Regardless, with small piles of snow still lurking, the season of rebirth and renewal is just around the corner.

That means that the pollinators will be showing up very soon, and if you want to see them you'll need to have plants that attract them.  I'm sure most people know of the troubles our honey bees and other beneficial insects have been facing lately.  These problems make it even more important to offer more of the plants these insects use for food.  

Today I'm going to give you a list of the plants I have that are popular with the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.  (If you are reading this outside of Plant Hardiness Zone 7, check to be sure these plants will survive in your zone before planting them.)

Disclosure:  I do not have a garden planted specifically for pollinators.  Flowers aren't really my thing, but some of these were here when we moved in.  The rest are conveniently associated with my herbal affinity.

Rose of Sharon flower
Rose of Sharon ~  This is one of the most popular flowers in the garden, loved by all the nectar drinkers.  It blooms from all summer, from about June through September.  Sometimes the bees get so heavily covered in pollen they can't fly.  We'll see them staggering around on the ground, and we say they're "nectar drunk." It's quite comical.  There are even times when they pass out inside the flower, it closes over them for the night, and they stagger out when it opens again in the morning.  Every so often, I see one fall out of a flower, too.  Silly bees.
Full Bloom

Butterfly Bush ~ The name speaks for itself.  This bush gets big, although there are dwarf versions.  It will begin blooming about May and continue through the entire season.  My big one usually has it's last flowers in early October.  The cone-shaped sprays start blooming at the bottom, and open row by row up to the tip.  They die off in the same fashion.  It comes in a few colors: pink, white, purple, red, and blue, plus a few multi-colored varieties. Like the Rose of Sharon, it's very popular with all the pollinators.  The one thing this bush attracts that isn't as easily seen on any of the others is the Sphinx Moth.  Fabulous creatures, those.  They have lobster-shaped "tails," bumble bee bodies, butterfly tongues, and hummingbird wings. 

Mint ~ There are so many kinds of mint.  On my deck I have: peppermint, spearmint, orange mint, apple mint, and chocolate mint.  (*Note: Mint is an invasive perennial, and so is better kept in containers unless you are willing to fight a hard battle.)  As a rule, I don't let my mint flower.  Once it flowers, the flavor quality plummets because the plant is putting all of its energy into producing seed.  Also, mints will cross-pollinate, which could create issues for your crop in the coming years.  But this year I let my orange mint go to flower, and I discovered that the bees loved it.  There was also some sort of wasp that frequented the sprays of tiny lilac-colored flowers.  
Wasp on Mint Flowers
Orange Mint Flowers

Bee Balm ~ The name says it all.  This perennial comes in varieties with pink, red, and white flowers.  Mine is red.  The flowers are bursts of color at the ends of long stems with thick foliage beneath.  Because they are tubular (and red), the flowers also attract the local hummingbirds.  As with the mint, it is a dual purpose plant, being delectable to the pollinators and edible for humans, too.

Salvia ~ This is sage in its many forms.  I have had Pineapple Sage, which was an amazing plant to grow.  Aside from the fabulous pineapple aroma, the bright red tubular flowers attract hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.  (I loved infusing sun tea with bruised leaves.)
Pineapple Sage

Squash ~ Yellow, zucchini, butternut, pumpkin.  Even gourds and cucumbers.  The bees love the bright orangey-yellow blooms on all of these plants.  (And the white flowers of the gourds, too.)  In the heat of summer, this area of my garden buzzes with the sounds of bumble and honey bees flitting around in the shade of the huge leaves.  Again, here we have a plant that feeds both insects and humans.  (I imagine the hummingbirds probably like them, too, but I haven't seen them personally.)
Bumble Bee inside Yellow Squash flower

Lavender ~ This is listed on "best for pollinators" lists, and it makes sense, but I haven't seen enough action around mine to say I would plant it for the purpose of attracting them.  That could be, though, because my lavender is very near my bee balm and mints.  (I felt it deserved mention from what I've read.)
Lavender just starting

Borage ~ While I have heard that this herb has several good uses--salads, deterring tomato worms, attracting bees--I had problems just getting it to grow.  Apparently, it doesn't do well in anything but well-drained soil.  I had one plant with a couple flowers.  They are pretty, and I love the benefits they are supposed to offer, so I will try again.  Until then, this herb from the "best for pollinators" lists is really untried in my garden.  I'm mentioning it because it is listed on so many lists, and I do plan on trying it again.

Happy Pollinating!

Friday, March 28, 2014

(De)Feathered Friday: Hard Lessons

On Monday, Bug and I went to feed the chickens and kitties next door.  As we approached, I saw three hens in the run.  The rooster is usually the first to greet us when they hear us coming, but sometimes he's inside doing other rooster duties.

Then I noticed one of the hens outside was limping.  As I approached, I saw tufts of feathers around the run.  These weren't normal lost feathers.  These were plucked.  And the limping hen had dried blood on her foot.  

Another careful look around the run showed that the other two hens weren't acting right.  They were outside, so they should've been scratching and pecking at the ground.  But they weren't.  They were hovering in one corner, looking around with nervous movements.

Oh crap.

I went to the coop door and unlatched it.  I was met by the scene of a slaughter.  Feathers were every where.  And there, across the coop from where I stood in shock, was the half-devoured body of our beautiful rooster.  Blood spattered on the wall next to him, and soaked into the straw beneath.  
Cleaned up a little, but you get the point.
I had my 4-year-old boy with me.  The rooster was his favorite chicken.  The other hen was gone, but it was One Eye, my dark red girl.  My favorite.  Now I had to not only clean up the carnage, but explain to my son that they were gone and why.  I don't believe in lying or telling stories to "protect" my child. He deserves to know the truth.  I just had to tell him in such a way that it wouldn't be as traumatic.

So I told him that a fox got into the coop and took One Eye.  He repeated it, but didn't seem to fully grasp it. Then I told him that the fox killed the rooster.  And I used the word kill, a word we don't use casually because of the meaning.  

He looked at me, understanding dawning on his angel face.  "It killed the rooster?  He's not coming back?"

I shook my head and said, "No, baby."  

I wrapped my arms around him, and he hugged me hard and cried.  I cried. It broke my heart to see my baby so distraught.

To keep him occupied while I removed the body from the coop, I gave him some corn and sent him inside the run to toss it out for the remaining hens.  I told him to stay on the far side of the run, away from the pop door.  (He loves to peek in through it, and I didn't want that.)  I was able to clean out the coop without incident, thank God.

We had another traumatic situation involving Bug bringing me the carcass of a cat he found in a stall.  My reaction to this freaked him out, so we just went home and cleaned up.  I had had enough of death for a month at that point.  

I went back over later, after seeking advice from The Chicken Chick and The Chicken Whisperer, both of whom were very supportive and helpful.  The first thing I did was catch the injured hen, clean up her leg, and put triple antibiotic ointment on the wound.  Then I shushed the other two back inside.  (Ironically, the injured hen was the calmest.  She was even acting normal and eating.)  I was able to force the pop door closed and shimmy the lock into place.

Upon returning to the run, I brought some plywood pieces to cover the entry hole I found.  It was a temporary fix, but I felt confident the hens were safely locked inside.  While I was rearranging the bricks and wood pieces, I discovered five places where the (presumed) fox tried to get in.  It succeeded in two of those.  
Entry hole from under the coop.
Smaller entry hole blocked with a brick.
Wood and bricks at larger hole.

Inside of wash-out hole.
Outside of wash-out hole.

There is an area beside and under the gate that has a gaping hole due to water runoff.  this was previously blocked up with a stack of bricks, but since I needed the bricks to help support the wood pieces I had to block it with wood as well.

The attempted hole that was successful Monday night.
When we went over Tuesday, the hens were safe inside and happy to see me.  I brought them some herbal tea and honey-cinnamon rice, both warm.  They came right to me, seeking their treats.  They must have been hungry because they hadn't eaten much since the attack.  But they dug right in.  One girl even left me an egg.

In the run, the wood blocking the larger hole had been pushed in, the bricks moved.  One of the unsuccessful holes had become a successful entry point, as well.  Two nights, each with two holes dug.  It makes me think there may be two predators.  I was given advice on how to make the fencing better, and I found some extra chicken wire upstairs in the barn, so I will be getting on that this week.  I just need clippers and wire to attach it.

Wednesday night, while taking my dog outside, I heard the pterodactyl cry of a fox. identifies the sound as a "territorial response."  (You can hear it here.)  Fox vocalizations were already creepy at night, but after this experience, it's worse.  Last year, about this same time, the chickens were attacked and two hens taken.  My neighbor behind me has an old barn that a vixen used as a den for her kits.  I can only think that she's either back or never left.  

Either way, this has left me with different plans for the run i build for my chickens.  I will do more than just bury the fence.  I have a plan that will make it impenetrable without significant work on the fox's part.

Rest in peace Rooster and One Eye.  
We love and miss you.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Showin' Up, (Not) Sellin' Out

Sunday was the first show for Mom & Me Gourds.  We were at Linganore Winecellars for Ladies Day Out.  Tickets were sold, and all proceeds went to Dress for Success.

As a first event, it was a good lesson.  Together we sold five gourds, the first two before the show even opened.  Mom faired much better than me, as I only sold one bowl while she sold two chicks and two lights.

We realized that this may not have been the right sort of event for our products.  The ladies that came were, for the most part, looking for less "crafty" type items.  We both felt that we would fair better at more of a craft show, or something like the Perry Hall Town Fair.  But it wasn't too bad.

Next to us was an old friend from high school.  She had wine glasses and such with vinyl designs on them.  (You can visit her Facebook page here.)  Much more suited to the event and customers.  But, we did learn from her.
  1. Be forwardly friendly.  Engage people as they come to the table with a smile and "hello" before they can walk away.  It keeps them there, looking at what you're selling.  I found that many people loved learning that we grow the gourds ourselves, and the process of how they become what the customers saw on the table.
  2. Raise your table.  She had blocks she put her table on.  It raised it so that it was harder for people to walk by without looking at her glasses, while our lower table could be passed right by with barely a glance.  This also forces you as the vendor to stand up in order to interact with potential customers, placing you at the same level in every conceivable way.
The person in charge of the event was thrilled that we came out.  She said we would do really well at their Christmas event because people are there shopping for gifts.  (You may remember that Christmas in the Barn was supposed to be our first event, but it was cancelled due to snow.)  We did put out a few of the winter and fall gourds, and they got a good response, but right now people are done with the cold and everything that symbolizes it.

The highlight of the show for me revolved around one woman.  As she walked up, she read the Mom & Me Gourds sign.  Then she looked right at me and said, "I was just on your blog.  You just got chicks, right?"  

I was thrilled!  Here I was meeting a reader of my blog.  And she remembered details about the post she had just read.  I only wish I had thought to ask her how she found The Sheepish Gardener.  (Maybe she'll read this post and leave a comment to let me know. ;) )

So, lessons learned from our first show:
  • Be friendly and approach people.  And be approachable to customers.
  • Raise the table.
  • Pack a lunch.
  • Have a large table cloth that will cover the entire table.  (We had to use two.)
  • Try to pick an event that is suitable to your product or service.

Welcome craft show season!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Mindful Monday: No Salt for Wildlife

This post starts the beginning of a series intended to help readers be a bit more mindful or educated about the topic.  Topics will include anything concerning the world around us as it pertains to the environment, healthy gardening, chickens, cooking and preserving, teaching children through play (on aforementioned topics).  You get the idea.

Today we're going to talk about salt and birds.

Every one likes to toss the wild birds pieces of bread,  popcorn, and other miscellaneous snacks.  But did you know that salt is BAD for the birds?

It makes sense, really:  Too much salt is bad for us as humans, so it must not be very good for birds either, right?  When you take into account the size difference between a human being and a bird, the amount of salt on a cracker, for example, could potentially be toxic to a small songbird.

Salt dehydrates.  It causes thirst, thereby making the consumer drink more (polydipsia), which, in turn, causes excessive excretion of fluids (polyuria).  In a creature as small as a bird, this could be devastating in a short amount of time.

This could apply to most woodland creatures.  Small amounts of salt (sodium chloride) are safe, but best to leave it to the animals to decide how much to ingest.  They can get the proper amounts through their natural diets.  Most of them do just fine with no human interaction at all. 

If you do want to toss some leftovers to the birds, there are safer choices.  Fruits, oatmeal, cooked rice, or small pieces of bread are fine.  (Despite the urban legend that bread is bad for birds, it is fine in moderation provided it is not moldy and is broken into manageable pieces.)

Better yet, just give them bird seed or suet.  (Or make your own. ;) )

Please Be Mindful:  
Don't feed salty snacks to the wildlife.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Feathered Friday: Our First Chicks

Wednesday we got our first chicks!  I decided I just couldn't wait any longer, so I packed up the Little Man and headed to The Mill where I was certain they had chicks.  (My mother rode along to see Bug pick out his first chicks.)  I only hoped that in the five days since we had first gone to see them, they still had the breed I wanted.

They did.  Oh, how they had grown in that short time.  What were tiny balls of soft fluff had transformed into leggy chicks with feathers on their wings.  They only had six left of the ones I wanted.  We took four.

We chose the only black one, one with a very yellow face and distinct red striping, and then two random grabs.  Those ended up being similar in appearance with full read heads, but one has a yellow stripe on each cheek.

These gals are Araucanas.

There are three distinguishing features that set the breed apart from others:

  1. They are rumpless, meaning they have no tails.  This gives a sort of dropped, rounded look to their rear.
  2. They have ear tufts--feathers that grow from a thin, fleshy flap just below the ear, forming a frilled dragon effect of sorts.
  3. They lay BLUE eggs.
Rumpless with Ear Tufts
(photo credit unknown)

The last reason, and what I've read about their temperament, was my biggest reason for getting these chickens.  Bug will love collecting blue eggs.  It'll be like the Easter Beagle visits the coop every night, hiding Easter eggs in the nesting boxes.

We have them starting in a 20-gallon fish tank.  With my reptile-keeping supplies, all we needed was a feeder and waterer.  Within a week they will be moved to a 75-gallon tank.

Now, with all that said, if these chicks turn out to be Easter Eggers (a blue egg-laying hybrid) instead of true Araucanas,  I won't care one bit.  I'm not a purist.  I just want good blue egg layers for my son.
He named them: Mine, Gracie (black), Tommi (after his brother),
and Gate Locker.
Bug and Mine

Me and Gracie

I will keep up with the progress of our chicks as they grow, as we build our coop, as we begin to collect eggs.  I will provide information on what I learn along the way, too.  Every Friday will be Feathered Friday, and will be dedicated to the chickens that have us so enthralled.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hangin' with Herbs. . .

There are several ways to dry herbs.  Some are more elaborate than others, but all are effective in their own way.  I'm going to give a run-down of the two methods I use.  I would love to have a drying rack, but our lifestyle makes that a dangerous choice for the herbs.  (If you want to make your own, here is a good one.)

Both of these methods take about the same amount of time, but there are herbs better suited to one or the other.  

First, and probably the easiest, is the towel technique.  This works best for herbs that bruise easily or tend to lose their green color when hanging, or for loose leaf herbs.  (Basil falls into both of these categories.)  

Clip your herbs, rinse them under cool running water, and pat dry with a clean dish or paper towel.

You can use clean dish towels, absorbent and not too fibrous.  I used paper towels, and they work just as well.  Double your paper towels, or fold your dish towel, onto a solid surface that you can relocate easily.  Place your washed herbs on the towel, spreading them out so they can get air to dry properly.  (There are techniques for cutting the leaves before drying, but I have had little success with them.) 

Once your herbs are spread out on the towel, cover them with another.  I used one paper towel on top.  I also clipped the edges together to keep it from blowing off.  
Don't forget to label and date your drying herbs!
Others recommend putting your drying herbs into a dark drawer.  I left mine in my sunroom where it was warmer and dryer than the anywhere in my kitchen.  The dry air is the most important thing here.  Humidity will slow the process and possibly cause unwanted growth of the unhealthy sort.

It took my herbs about two weeks to dry completely, but this will vary depending on the location and type of herbs you are working with.

The second method, and more fun for me, is the paper bag method.  This goes along the lines of hanging herbs to dry, but without the mess that can bring.  (I speak from experience.)  

Cut your herbs so you have nice long stems to work with.
Pinch the stems together so they are all even at the base, and tuck them into a paper bag.  Mine are slightly larger than "lunch" size.  I found this accommodates a wider variety of herbs.

Pull the top of the bag around the stems, and wrap a strong rubber band around them.

Don't forget your labels!

Again, this technique takes about two weeks.  Once the herbs are dry, pull them out and begin prepping them for storage.  (Here is where the two drying methods meet.  Prepping for storage is the same once the herbs are dry.)
Lemon Thyme dried and ready for prep.
Lemon Thyme in jar
For the herbs that are still on stems, it's usually easy to just pull your fingers gently down the stem to clean the leaves off.  Herbs like Basil and Parsley that are just leaves can be ground with a mortar and pestle or simply tossed in a food processor and ground until they are the size and consistency you desire.
Dried Lemon Thyme leaves

 For storage, you can use anything you want, as long at it's air-tight.  I had some nice jars from my cousin's wedding.  I hammered the herb names into copper tags and wrapped them around the mouth of the jar.

 Herbs that do better with the towel method: 

  • basil
  • parsley
  • mint
  • sage

Herbs for hanging:

  • thyme
  • rosemary
  • oregano
  • catnip

Obviously, there are others, but I haven't dried them yet.  My chives, for instance, I use fresh or freeze.

 Happy Drying!

Click here for LinkUps to other fun stuff.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Top o' the mornin' . . .

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Top o' the mornin' to ya!

With the "launch" of my new domain, I'm going to start a regular posting schedule.  The idea is to make it easier on me to get my posts up on a consistent basis, while providing educational tidbits and fun life experiences.  So, every Monday and Friday will have a theme.  (I'm keeping them secret for now.)  And every Wednesday will be a real-life post about what is going on in and around my own garden and soon-to-be chicken coop.

With these changes, I'm also going to add more pages to the top of the blog so it's easier to navigate and find older posts.  That way if' you're looking for something about my herbs, for instance, you can just click on the "Herbs" page at the top, and PRESTO! you're looking at all the herbal postings.

I am pretty excited about all of this, and I hope you, my faithful readers, will like the revamped Sheepish Gardener page.  At the same time, I'm hoping you will join my Facebook page and tell your friends and family so I can really expand my platform.

Now this red-headed German girl licked with Irish blood bids you a very happy and safe St. Patrick's Day.  

May the luck o' the Irish be with you!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Mother Knows Best. . .

Winter has been long and harsh throughout the country, but Spring is coming.  Mother says so. . .

Daffodil Sprouts
I didn't plant my daffodils, but I believe they are planted a tad too deep because they are usually about two weeks behind my neighbors'.  The day before I took this picture, the sprouts in my mother's garden were already 3-4 inches tall.

A couple days later, I saw these beauties pushing through the thawing earth.

Tulip Sprouts
Now these, I planted.  Well, I transplanted them with little to knowledge of what I was doing.  I dug them up from elsewhere in what used to be a garden, and because they were either large red flowers, or the fancy black parrot tulips, I tried replanting a few.  I had mild success.  Last year they were mown down before they were 6 inches tall, so I don't even know which kind they are yet.  

While my little man and I were planting lettuce seeds for our "new" chickens in an old plastic feeder. . .

. . . we had friendly visitor. . .

Winter Sleepy Honey Bee
Now I would never encourage anyone to pick up a bee of any type, and I told my son this, but this bee was groggy.  He was also in danger of getting trampled where we were, so I picked him up, delighted in the joy of holding such an amazing creature, used the educational opportunity, and found a safe place in the wood pile to put him down.

Later, I will share some fun facts about these incredible insects.

Remember when you're planting in the early spring that you need to protect your seeds and sprouts from frosts.  As a general rule, I wait until after Mother's Day to plant my garden.  But there are some plants that prefer the colder weather.  Lettuce, peas, and broccoli are a few. 

Even thought they like the colder weather, I still protect them.  You can let them feel the cold without having to feel the bite of frost on their delicate leaves.  I bring smaller containers inside at night and put them outside on days when it's above 40 degrees.  Larger containers get mason jar greenhouses to protect their precious goods.  When frost threatens plants that have outgrown initial safeguards, I use plastic sheets.  I don't plant anything in my garden until after the middle of May, mostly because it's not tilled until then.

So, while the cold may not yet be banished from the land, our Mother Earth promises warmth is on the way.  I will bide the time in containers and seedling pots until then.  

Enjoy the crops each season offers.