Pests to Pets: Swallowtail Butterfly Farm

It is a widely known (I hope) fact that Monarch Butterflies are in danger due to Milkweed annihilation. Letting Milkweed grow is a wonderful conscious step to remedy this problem. Milkweed makes pretty flowers and usually grows away from the garden in a flower bed or in a field as a weed.

Swallowtail butterfly, on the other hand, unlike the Monarch, feeds on the plants we actually cultivate in the garden: dill, parsley, carrots, rue etc. This is a significant difference, because this makes the Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar a garden pest. And even though most gardeners know that butterflies are beneficial pollinators, as well as pretty to look at, dealing with their caterpillar damage may be frustrating. The problem worsens due to the fact that gardeners often do not identify the caterpillars correctly and simply destroy them.

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Swallowtail butterflies start as little, individually laid pearl-shaped eggs, which turn into little spiky brown-black caterpillars with one white stripe, resembling bird droppings. The caterpillars shed their skin a few times and are most often seen in a green/black striped garb with yellow dots. They have little orange horns that pop out when threatened, which release a very stinky odor. In a few weeks of feeding, the caterpillars make a cocoon and in a few more weeks – butterflies emerge.

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We have been raising Swallowtail butterflies for a few years now and release dozens of them out into the wild. We would like to encourage people to think Pet, not Pest. You can have your dill and let the butterfly caterpillars eat it too!

The easiest solution is to plant some extra dill/parsley away from the garden or on the side and let the caterpillars feed on their own patch. This will protect your main crop, but won’t protect the caterpillars, which often vanish in our garden due to high population of wild birds… So to save both, your garden plants and the caterpillars, a caterpillar farm is the answer. It is so incredibly easy to make and is fun, educational and beneficial to your garden!

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Life Beyond Trash and How to Do It

In our seemingly endless efforts to reduce our impact, as well as monthly bills and dependance on outside services, a few months ago we made the scary step and cancelled our trash service.

What would replace it, we hoped, would not be a trash filled garage, but an efficient system of composting, burning, recycling and other seamless elimination of what is commonly known as “trash”.

I am glad to announce that three months later, we have in fact not been buried under trash, but have been successful in maximizing its use and here are some tips on how you too can take the plunge and explore Life Beyond Trash!


 

To manage your “trash” efficiently it must be categorized and re-invisioned as:

1. Compostibles:

Usually the most abundant trash category in the household. Anything of natural origin that can biodegrade in the composter. (If you don’t have one, you should start one!) This will include: kitchen scraps, grass and yard clippings, natural fabric, non-protein left-overs, rotten fruits and vegetables, chicken and other farm animal used bedding, straw etc.

This category will stay and be processed on the property, adding to the value and nutrients of the garden and lifestock.

2. Feedables:

This is especially helpful if you have animals. (If you don’t, you should get some 🙂 ) A lot of items can be both:  fed to animals AND composted, so it would be up to you to decide which item would serve the best purpose – what your animals like to eat and what is better for the composter balance. This category would include: vegetable kitchen scraps and left-overs for the chickens/pigs/goats/worms etc. Protein left-overs for your dogs/cats etc.

This category will stay and be processed on the property, adding to the value and nutrients of the garden and lifestock.

3. Burnables:

This is anything that would burn well, but slow to break down in the composter, like wood, paper, natural fabrics, hard/dry yard waste that does not decompose easily. Paper and cardboard can be either burned, recycled or turned into vermi-compost, so its up to you. One thing to consider: ashes can be used for the garden, so if you burn the paper you get ashes, if you recycle, you don’t get anything back!

TIP 1: I find that tea bags, even though are biodegradable, do not compost fast enough, but are perfect for burning (just make sure to only get the paper ones!).
TIP 2: We find trash burning a great family bonding time, plus with a few wood logs tossed in – a great opportunity to have a small cook-out dinner: generating energy for cooking while disposing of waste is stacking functions at its best. 🙂
TIP 3: Cardboard shipping boxes make a great weed block around plants or walkway cover. We lay flattened boxes around large plants, such as broccoli, cabbage, squash and it keeps down weeds, while slowly biodegrading and keeping in moisture! Its FREE, breathable and safe, as opposed to plastic. (Just take care to moisten the cardboard and put some dirt down to prevent it from flying away if you have strong winds, like we do.)

(Please use all precautions and burn safely!)

This category will stay and be processed on the property, adding to the value and nutrients of the garden and lifestock. 

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Transplanting onions

We have a very late start this spring, with frosts well into April! However, its time for first transplants of the year – our onions.

We are growing two heirloom types: Stuttgarter and Cortland. These are short-day varieties well suited for Northern gardeners, with pungent flavor and are THE BEST winter keepers. I will be planting around 200 onions to see whether this can satisfy our yearly demand. We have started the seedlings back in January, about 12 weeks before planned transplant. We seeded them in batches, roughly 50 per re-purposed square container in a soiless mixture of peat, perlite and vermiculite.

We prefer seedlings over onion sets because seeds are cheaper than sets and there is greater variety to select from. Also, seedlings, as well as direct seeding, produces onions that are better keepers than the ones grown from sets. However, we do prefer to start seeds indoors as opposed to direct seeding, because it ensures an earlier start, plus provides more control over the amount and the quality of the seedlings.

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Late winter and spring surprises

Our gardening this year was started by us trying to find our garden. Under of three feet of snow. Its a first for us.

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Another surprise this spring was finding a hidden nest of duck eggs in one of our planters under the tarp cover on our porch. We still have no idea how they snuck it in there and managed to continue laying for weeks without us noticing! Its never boring here with the critters. 🙂

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New Year, New Garden

It’s a new year, new garden and a new attempt to keep the updates regular. Let’s make this happen.

So, you know the feeling. That feeling that creeps up on you in the middle of dead winter – its time to start my seedlings! So despite the 3 foot-deep snow outside and the negative degrees (Fahrenheit!) – thanks Pennsylvania winter! – you dig out your gardening tools, connect the grow lights and try to breath light into the cold, gloomy garage or whichever room is going to serve as a greenhouse for the next few months.

And then – and then you get excited. Excited because you know that spring is coming and this time its going to be better than ever. Because this time you have the added experience of the last year, the information from all those articles you read and a brand, grand new plan.

So, middle of January, onion seeds can go in, a few weeks later (beginning of February) its your cabbage family: broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts; tomatoes, peppers, maybe a few basils or other herbs you may wish to start early. And now you are all set – to watch the snow melt outside (it will, I promise) as your seedlings grow inside.

I make my own grow mix from equal parts of peat moss, perlite and vermiculite. Moisten the mixture in a bucket for at least a day and put in small containers into the makeshift green house we made inside.

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For the green house we used an industrial shelving unit form Lowe’s ($70-80), to which we retrofitted T5 grow lights (best price I found is here: http://www.thelashop.com/fluorescent-grow-light/) and covered the sides with mylar space blankets to reflect the light in all direction and keep it warm and moist. So far we love this setup – plus the shelving may be used for many other things once there are no seedlings!

The only problem I have been having with my seedlings (second year now) are thrips. They may be in the peat that I am using or literally coming from thin air, but just can’t quite figure out how to get rid of them for good.
I am currently trying neem oil spray on the seedling leaves and top of the soil (1 tsp per 2 cups water) we will see how it works. If anyone has any suggestions – let me know about your experiences!

We also are growing lettuce and spinach in our cedar container along with the seedlings and already harvested a decent amount for dinner! Such a treat in the middle of dead winter.

What and when are you starting for your grow season? Let me know!

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Raising Ducks

This year we have decided to pick up a couple of ducks along with our first batch of chickens back in March. The duck breed was not marked and we are still not sure whether they will migrate or not. For now, we are just enjoying the time we do have with them. They are messy and stubborn, yet so terribly amusing that we cannot imagine our farm without them.

Ducks live well with chickens, yet they require a few additional needs met and we wanted to share how we handled these to make for some happy ducks.

1. Feeding and watering: Ducks eat by gobbling up food and then mixing it with water, splashing it everywhere and making a terrible wet mess. While still babies, living in a box inside, we raised their water and food off the floor and put multiple levels of consecutively smaller plates under the water to create a makeshift water catching system for their splashing. Adding paper towels to the plates also helps. This worked really well and actually kept the box (and their chicken neighbors) quite dry.Outside they share the food and water with the chickens and except the fact that they mix dirt with the water (which needs to be changed more frequently) and make tiny holes around the waterer (which needs to be moved on occasion) while digging for food, we have not had to make any special concessions for them.

Ducks need more niacin than chickens. Their feet may not develop correctly if they do not get enough. However, we believe supplements are only necessary if there is a sign of deficiency. Since regular chicken food has all the necessary vitamins included and ducks eat more than chickens (and grow faster!) they get more of the vitamins as well. Duck need and like more protein than chickens and foraging outside for bugs and worms is very beneficial for them.

2. Pooping: Ducks poop on average every 15 mins. Very productive little birds. They prefer to poop in the water, which is why their pool needs to be emptied  or filtered regularly.

3. Housing and swimming: Ducks like to nest on the ground, not big on climbing stairs. They also absolutely adore water. So what we did when the babies were ready to sleep outside, is to grab a 55 gallon blue food grade drum, split it in half and use one half for housing and the other half (with little wooden support and stairs) for the ducks pool. $17 for the drum + some wood and bricks = done. To prevent the birds from sleeping in the pool (which was still too cold to do in early April) and also since the chickens had a brilliant idea of trying to sleep with the ducks – in the pool – we put the stairs on a hinge to be able to pick them up at night. Also, the opening of the drum allowed for a simple hose attachment for convenient water drainage.

The best place to get these drums is Craiglist or a local person that resells them (as we did). New ones can be purchased from a wholesaler, such as Costco etc. They are great for water catchment systems, planters, storage and more!

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In the garden: June

It’s amazing to realize its been a month since i took you on a visual tour around the garden! I personally survey it every morning and afternoon and am amazed at all the changed that happen on daily basis to all the plants. Nature is truly a marvelous thing.

Peas came in well this year, with the first batch being done and second ripening close behind. And not counting all the wonderful greens (lettuce, kale, spinach, parsley, dill, mustard greens and radishes) the next exciting big thing we are looking forward to are the potatoes, which have been now twice hilled (or in our case, “filled”) and are starting to flower.

We have also been overwhelmed by the chamomile flowers and are having an impossible time keeping up. Our house is filled with drying chamomile!
Its seeded freely from last year and in most placed i left it to grow, because its called “garden’s physician”, making all plants that grow next to it healthy 🙂 And as an added bonus, ladybugs love it – might be because aphids do to! – but ladybugs in the garden means less aphids and less potato bugs. So yes to chamomile all the way!

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Lettuce in the shade of second year carrots getting ready to flower.

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Chamomile!

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Trellising peas

Peas are, no doubt, the highlight vegetable of the month – the first to bloom and bear fruit in the garden!

As we live on a windy hill, we prefer short/bush type varieties and still like to provide additional support for our peas, especially once they start bearing pods.

In the past we used chicken wire but were unhappy with the results, plus it did not look attractive. We considered using nylon netting this year, but the cost plus the plastic aspect of it made us wish for a better solution.

In the future, my goal would be to provide natural growing support for plants needing it via complimentary sturdy plants, but until we figure out that plan, we decided to go with a rustic approach this year. (Click here to see how our trellising worked out when the peas got to be fully grown)

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We gathered deadfall stick and branches from nearby forest, making sure they were clean of fungus and bugs and constructed teepees and trellising with jute. Now we have a very organic and mostly free trellising landscape, which can easily go into the compost or the fire pit once done!

Also, this is a fun project for kids to help drape the jute netting for the peas to climb on.

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Growing potatoes

Growing potatoes is very rewarding because, unlike most vegetables that provide garnish, potatoes actually provide meals, which makes them very important to any self-suffciency goal oriented gardener.

When planting potatoes, it is important to plant seed potatoes that have not been treated, like most store bought ones. We think its important to go for organic as well, and varieties that will suit your needs. If you plan to store them: plant good winter keepers! This year we are planting Yukon Golds (notoriously good keepers) and Desiree red potatoes, which do not keep as well, but are delicious. We got our seed potatoes from Peaceful Valley – 7 pounds of Yukon Gold and 3 pounds of Desiree. We plan to get 100 pounds of potatoes, since under good conditions 1 pound yields 10!

Store potatoes around 40 degrees to prevent sprouting, and, conversely, if you desire to “green” them to speed up the process, take them into a warmer place to sprout the eyes a week or two before planting. Make sure to always keep potatoes out of direct sunlight. When you are getting ready to plant, a week or so prior, cut the potatoes into a few pieces at least 2 oz each, making sure each one contains 1-2 eyes. If the potatoes are rather small, its better to keep them whole. Leave the cut pieces for a few days in the storage container so the cuts can heal – this decreases the chances of rotting once planted.

The potato piece with the eye becomes the root base of the potato plant, as the plant grows, it will form potatoes along the stem, however, the potatoes turn green and become toxic when exposed to sunlight. This phenomenon is a natural defense mechanism for potatoes and other members of the nightshade family, to prevent the uncovered fruit from being eaten. The green color is from chlorophyl and is harmless, READ MORE… >

In the garden: May

Last week we have passed the date of the last frost here in Eastern PA. This means we are in Week 1 of the post-frost growing season.
Lots have happened over the last few weeks and we cant wait to share it all!
So – what is growing in the garden this week?

Peas look great so far!

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