So far the Farmers Almanac has been pretty accurate for our area. Not much snow, plenty of ice, and much colder than usual. Here you can see the chickens don't seem to mind the completely iced over ground. We initially had some fears about the survivability of our chickens this winter. We had paid much more attention to the egg laying abilities and unique features of each breed more than their cold hardiness. With the very large, open style coop that our girls enjoy, drafts are aplenty. Now that temperatures have stayed in the 20's with lows in the single digits, I feel we can now rest easy, knowing that our chickens (and ducks) are quite resilient in some of the coldest weather in recent years. The breeds that seem to be doing the best are:
Ducks: All of them (Blue Runner, Mallards, and Khaki Campbells). We have 5 ducks, and continue to collect 3 duck eggs each day, even now that we have only 9 hours of daylight. They are by far the most reliable.
Chickens: Dark Cornish, Rhode Island Red, Buff Orpington, Silver Laced Wyandottes, and Barred Rock. Their egg laying abilities seem to fluctuate mostly with the temperature and cloudiness. We have roughly 30 chickens, and on warmer, sunnier days, they will provide up to a dozen eggs each day. On cold or very cloudy days they will provide as few as 3 eggs. We do have one injury to report though, the frostbite of our roosters comb. None of the hens (who have much shorter combs) have any injuries, leading me to think we need a breed with rose, pea, or cushion comb. Obvious choices would be the Dark Cornish (pea), or the silver laced wyandottes (rose).
Now onto my favorite part of this post, the garden.This winter I decided to leave all of the fall vegetables uncovered and (some) unharvested to test their ability to store in the ground. The ground has warmed significantly this weekend, and made for easy harvesting of a few samples to taste.
The carrots didn't look too happy upon first glance. After I pulled back the dead leaves, there were several young, healthy leaves poking out from the center of each carrot. This was surprising considering the ice was frozen 1/8" thick on these plants less than a week ago.
I loosened the earth from around a carrot and gently pulled it free from its muddy home. It appeared to be in good shape. After washing and tasting a few things became more apparent to me. First, it was a much brighter orange than usual. Secondly, it was much crunchier than any carrot I have eaten. Third, it was by far the sweetest, most delicious carrot that we have ever grown. The variety is St. Valery, and it surpasses all other carrots with ease. Very winter Hardy.
After reading in a few different books that blue kales tend to be more sensitive to frosts and freezes, we decided to go with a purple colored variety called "Ragged Jack" or also known as "Russian Red". Older, exterior leaves showed some damage, but could still be picked and utilized in soups. They were just as tasty as the young interior leaves (which showed no damage) which were nutty, had no bitterness, and were very tender. Note the older damaged leaves at the top of this photo, and the younger, healthy leaves in the bottom center.
The collard greens were the best I have ever tasted in my life; I ate handfuls of them straight from the garden. While they suffered mild frostbite, it was not enough to destroy the plant, or make them any less edible.
The cabbages also did quite well, as did the Brussels Sprouts. The Rutabagas, Swiss Chard, Beets, Turnips, Broccoli, and Cauliflowers have all been completely destroyed. However, I have left the rutabagas in the ground to test their ability to store even after the tops have withered away.
The fall planted garlic is doing quite well. The tender green shoots didn't even succomb to the ice and snow storms and are still looking quite green and healthy. For those who haven't planted garlic before, it is normally planted in the fall, where it grows roots and eventually a little green shoot. The shoot is normally nipped back in the cold days of winter, and re-emerges in spring where it will have a huge head start on finishing its growth cycle. The fall planted bulbs always outproduce spring planted bulbs and also have much better taste. The photo below shows how much growth a garlic clove undergoes in one month. It was planted the first week of Nov in Zone 6b, and shows why it is superior to spring planting. The variety is Music, and it is a porcelain hardneck type.
Stay tuned for more updates as the winter gets even colder and darker!
The recent ice storm forced us into an impromptu experiment in saving fruit trees. The smallest amount of ice build up can easily break limbs or even completely destroy young trees. Our cherry tree is especially susceptible to breakage since it is double grafted, or has 2 different grafts. The first is onto a disease resistant dwarfing stock, and the second much weaker graft, is of a tangy, yellow cherry onto a sweet, dark red cherry base. This tree will produce the bright yellow, Stark Gold cherries from one main branch, and dark red, Van Sweet's from another.
My other main trees of concern were the apples. An especially precocious Granny Smith has put on over 8ft of new growth since spring. The Cox's Orange Pippin, while not as big, had quite a bit of new, still flimsy growth.
A few weeks ago I had made my way through all of the fruit trees installing tall metal stakes and retying all of them nicely (and very thoroughly...perhaps even too thoroughly) to prepare for all of the wind we experience in the late fall and winter.
By the time I had gotten off of work and managed to get home, it was already getting dark. We quickly went to work with the only idea that I could think of. I once read (on a random blog about raising cold hardy citrus) that large C9 christmas lights could be used to prevent citrus from being damaged from a light frost. In theory, if enough bulbs are on the tree, a microclimate is created from all of the heat, staving off the frost. After we got a few strands of lights untangled, and found enough extension cords, a thin layer of ice had already begun to form on the trees. Since all of the leaves on the top hadn't fallen off yet, the tree started sagging dangerously low, making a frightening creaking, crackling sound. In the midst of wrapping the lights in the trees, my hands became too stiff to bend. I shoved them into my pockets to warm them...and that is when I had my second idea...to form a teepee of sorts around the tree to not only trap heat in the crucial grafting and crotch angle areas, but to also funnel the heat upwards onto the branches that couldn't be wrapped. Thomas went inside to cut strips of plastic while I finished stringing up the lights. Hopefully, the plastic would also form a physical barrier to protect against frost, as well as "holding" the branches up if tied tightly enough. It was the best we could come up with in the moment, so we went with it.
The fruit trees, all dressed up for the ice storm.
I was nervous waking up this morning. As I put on my coffee and got dressed to feed the chickens, I wondered how many branches would be littered around the yard. With up to a quarter of an inch of ice forecasted, it could have easily been a grim sight.
As I stepped out onto the porch, I could see the ice had blown up at least four feet onto our covered porch... Not a good sign.
Limbs from our oak trees were scattered around our side yard. Luckily, the rosemary bushes I planted very close to the house, on the west facing wall had no ice at all on them, and they still looked very healthy and green.
I walked on out the fruit trees and noticed the ice had built up about a tenth of an inch, but the leaves had also captured multiple runs of roughly inch long icicles, making them quite heavy.
I looked down into our make-shift teepees, and found no ice at all! All of the ice that had already formed had melted, and had even managed to dry the bark.
If you look closely you can see the graft union under the base of the green light bulb. The reason that these joints are so weak is that a graft doesn't "fuse" together. The original touching wood will never be joined, but all new growth will be completely joined as one. So, with only one season of growth, it is still quite susceptible to breakage.
While the experiment was a success in that no damage occurred to any of our fruit trees, there were some failures. The chimney effect that I had hoped to create, did not seem to be successful which allowed the continual buildup of ice on unprotected, exposed wood.
In this photo you can see that the protection ends with the plastic. However, this was definitely a success, and I think it could even be used on a larger scale to protect fruit blossoms from late spring frosts (to ensure a crop of fruit each year). All in all, this experiment cost nothing, and took about an hour to carry out. The insurance it provided was enough that we have decided to leave the protective measures in place until this storm system has completely passed us! Until next time...