Friday, July 31, 2009


You don't go into Publix and buy a pound or 2 of fresh cowpeas, but they're a staple in the Florida summer garden. These hearty, heat and humidity-loving, soil improving little gems have a lot going for them. They're essentially black-eyed peas... only coming in vast colors and shapes and not just black-eyed. We have 3 varieties growing this year:

Purple Hull Pink Eyes (from Baker Creek)- very strong and prolific. I really like these because the pod ripens to a deep purple making them easy to find in the bushy jungle I call our summer garden. Not drawing too many bugs and slow the dry out. Only problem is they color your fingernails black when you shell too many.

Mississippi Silvers (from Southern Exposure or Baker Creek)- Again, strong and prolific. Pods ripen to a pale yellow and dry out faster so I've learned to harvest twice a day when I can. What isn't ready one morning can be beyond ready the next. The peas are small and tan. Pods are easy to shell (the 3 year old farmer girl does all our cowpea shelling).

California Black Eyes (from a hardware store's seed rack)- I really don't recommend these. In fact I'm really learning my lesson over snagging whatever is on a store's seed rack. I just don't think they have Florida in mind when Morse Ferry is putting together their display. These draw bugs and worms continuously. They too fade to pale yellow and will immediately rot on the vine with all the worms that will chew on them. Not nearly as prolific either.

We eat a lot of soups (from bone broths of home grown chickens or local grass-fed beef) so I generally throw then into whatever soup I've got cooking. But there are tons of salads and side dishes that can be made from them. I generally collect them for a week and if I haven't used them, I put them in the dehydrator and then into a jar for storage.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Poultry Praise and Problems

Slaughterfest VI went off without a hitch. All is great. And we remain very impressed with the Dixie Rainbow breed from S and G Poultry. They are a bit smaller than the cornish rocks, but the healthfulness of the bird is worth the small decrease in size. We'll still probably be able to get 2 main meals and a soup out of each bird... though maybe not once the Boy is eating more. Between the two of us, we were able to slaughter 6 birds per hour. We had a lengthy break for lunch and child-tending which meant it took all day, but one day's work to put up 6 months of food is a pretty good rate.

Now for the poultry problem... previously we had 3 muscovy ducks- Donald and Pretty Duck and Pretty Duck (the females were named by the Girl). Last week around Thursday, I noticed a pretty duck wasn't around. I hoped she had found a safe place to lay eggs and had gone broody. Previously if I didn't find eggs, crows, coons or anything else did... quickly. Then Monday morning I noticed Donald didn't come running for his bit of grain. I haven't seen him since either. We've had these ducks for about a year now with no problems with predators so we don't know if they've been eaten or have run off to greener pastures. There's a pond down the street, but I've checked there twice and found nothing. The other Pretty Duck is still here and we have 3 hopefully fertilized eggs sitting in the incubator... but at what point do you have mercy on the single remaining duck? Do we wait until after August 9th (the hatch date) and see if we have anything hatch and keep what does? Should we wait the 35 days from last Thursday to see if the missing ducks really are setting on some eggs (with Donald being the protector?) Or should we cut our losses and take Pretty Duck down to the muscovy haven pond a mile or so away where she'll have lots of friends and plenty of breeding opportunities? We got them for bug control... and they did wipe out the ant piles in our yard. But they aren't helping our fly problem... nor mosquitoes for that matter. I think we just don't have enough of them and I'm not sure we're willing to keep the size flock we'd need for that kind of insect control. I think we'd be better off with a bat box or two. But I don't want to leave a lone female muscovy vulnerable to an unseen, unknown predator either... Any suggestions?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Slaughterfest VI- preparation day

A noisy rooster has finally settled down and stopped screaming... which he's been doing since before 5 am and I'm enjoying the thought of only one more morning to contend with him. His fertilized eggs are in the incubator... his work is done. Tomorrow we will have Slaughterfest VI... our sixth round of slaughtering chickens for meat. Today is preparation day. For people not understanding how we could "kill our pets"... that's just it. They're not pets. They're tools. They've lived a GOOD life and enjoyed freedoms most chickens don't even know to dream about. And soon they will be GOOD food, completely unmatched in quality by even the finest store-bought birds. And here's what I do to prepare:

1. Clean out the fridge and make as much room as possible. Also alert nearby family and friends to find possible overflow refrigerator space if needed.

2. Clean out and organize the freezer.

3. Count and label enough 2 gallon ziplock bags, one for each bird.

4. Clear and clean counters, tables, sink and anything else that could get in the way of piles of raw poultry. Have a container of disinfectant wipes on hand.

5. Move furniture to allow for easy access from outside to the clean, clear counters.

6. Clean coolers, buy ice, and get the garden clompers sharpened.

7. Remove the chickens' feeder in early evening.

Tomorrow morning we will:

1. Heat a big pot of boiling water. The scald temp should be 150-160 degrees. For us, this means we fill a cooler with hot tap water, add a pot of boiling water, and use a candy thermometer to monitor the temp.

2. Hook up the automatic plucker (a borrowed Featherman) to the hose and run electric to it.

3. Set up "tables" for gutting... this is usually an upside down Rubbermaid tote with a plastic garbage bag taped to it.

4. Gather random equipment: tweezers, kitchen knife, small garden clippers, and small containers for hearts and livers.

The process:

1. Dump the boiling water into cooler #1 and get temperature to 150-160.

2. Give chickens a little grain (this is so that the crop is detectable but not so full as to have if burst during gutting).

3. Quickly grab a chicken. We've found the easiest way to end the life is for one person to hold the bird down and stretch out the neck while the other uses the large garden clompers to sever the head. Then the bird is still held still during the twitching so the meat isn't bruised. When twitching slows, we repeat the process with bird #2 and then #3.

4. Dunk birds one at a time into the scald tank for about 20 seconds, swishing the bird around so the water gets under all the feathers.

5. Throw all 3 birds into the plucker and let it do its job.

6. Get another pot of water starting to boil.

7. Pull out a bird from the plucker and go over it with tweezers to pluck any stray feathers and hairs then hand it over to be gutted.

8. Feet are cut off with the garden clippers. A slice is made under the breastbone and the innards removed. Our deal is that the homesteading Mama changes poopy diapers and the homesteading Papa eviscerates chickens so I'm not so familiar with this part. I know there are several more sites depicting the details of the gutting process so I'll just say that here, they are gutted.

9. Hose them down and clean them up. Put them in cooler #2 filled with ice water.

10. Repeat steps 1-9 until all birds are processed.

11. Bring birds in 1 or 2 at a time. Do a final good cleaning and tweezing in the clean and sanitized kitchen sink. Drop the bird into a ziplock bag and stash in the fridge for 24-48 hours before transferring to the freezer. If you put them in the freezer too soon, you'll have a tough, dry bird.

12. Clean and sanitize the kitchen and the floor (bird juice will no doubt drip as you bring them in).

13. Cook up the livers with a good amount of onions and butter for a yummy dinner. Save the hearts (cut off the aorta) for cooking with eggs in the morning... tastes like sausage!)

14. While I'm cleaning and cooking, my husband is cleaning up outside. The feathers go into the compost pile (GREAT nutrient value!), the innards go into a garbage bag. Our trash day is Friday and we typically slaughter on Saturday so we dump the waste in a nearby dumpster instead of holding it for a week. If trash pick up is within 3 days, it would probably be safe to put it in your own trash can provided its not too close to the house. It will stink, but maggots wouldn't be hatching yet. This round we're saving the heads and feet for a friend who uses them in crab traps. Trading chicken heads for fresh crab sounds good to me!

15. When cooking grass-fed chicken (or grass-fed anything), cook it low and slow for optimum flavor and texture. I cook with the breast down so the best part cooks in its own juice. You can turn it right at the end to crisp up the skin if you want a pretty presentation.

Chicken processing complete for another 6 months or so. We tend to raise meat birds twice a year for about 13 weeks. This is our first time raising "Dixie Rainbows" by S and G Poultry (see the links on the sidebar) and are VERY impressed. They're not quite as big as Cornish Rocks, but its also late July and we haven't lost a single bird. Cornish Rocks start dropping like flies when the heat hits 85. They're fat, lazy, don't feather out well because they're always laying down and just flat don't look like real chickens. These Dixie Rainbows are gorgeous, healthy, hearty looking birds. We will definitely be continuing with them! In fact we're saving out 2 hens and a rooster for breeding with from this batch.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Fall Garden Plan

Seeds are up and getting big for the fall garden. This is our plan, though as with anything, nature may change it up some. All veggies this round are started from seed. All were ordered through Baker Creek or Southern Exposure. All are new varieties to me unless noted with an asterisk*. In the end we intend to really minimize the number of different varieties we grow, but we're still in the experimentation phase right now. When choosing varieties, I look for quick return (in the spring we have to beat the heat and in the winter we have fewer hours of daylight meaning everything grows slower anyway), good yields, tolerant to heat, humidity and disease and obviously, good taste. We're not against hybrids, just haven't really tried many yet. We'd rather do open-pollenated heirlooms as much as is feasible... but we've already learned there is a definite place for hybrids in the Florida garden!

July: Tomatoes- Black Cherokee and Uncle Mark Bigby
Belle Peppers- Sweet Chocolate and Charleston Belle (low germination rate on Charlestons... just planted round two this morning)
Watermelon- Blacktail Mountain and Sugarlee (again, low germination and planted more)
Cucumber- Edmonson Pickling
Collard Greens- Georgia Southern
Green Beans- Contender

August: Broccoli-Waltham 29* and De Cicco
Bok Choy-Ching Chang
Swiss Chard- Canary Yellow and Flamingo Pink

September: Brussels Sprouts- Long Island Improved
Cabbage- Early Jersey Wakefield and Early Flat Dutch
Lettuce- Jericho, Little Gem*, Sweet Valentine, Slo-Bolt, Mignonette Bronze*
Turnips- White Egg
and more collards, broccoli, bok choy and swiss chard

October: Radishes- Early Scarlet Globe
Peas- Wando*, Lincoln*, Little Marvel
and more brussels sprouts, cabbage, lettuce, turnips, brocolli, bok choy and swiss chard

November, December, and January: more radishes, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, lettuce, turnips, bok choy and swiss chard.

January also begins spring planting, but that's still unplanned. More about that a few months from now.

For companion planting, I've done the best I could with our plan and the suggestions made in Carrots Love Tomatoes. Here's the plan:

Bed 1- Watermelons (fresh soil that has never seen a cucurbit... a vining squash-type plant)

Bed 2- Peppers

Bed 3- Lettuce and Radishes

Bed 4- Peas and Turnips

Bed 5 and 6- Tomatoes, Collards and Swiss Chard

Bed 7- Beans and Cucumbers

Bed 8- Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, etc)

And a smattering a dill here and there for insect repellant. Much of what I did this season as far as companioning wasn't so much what really HELPS each other, but rather what won't HURT each other and then also arranged them so short brassicas and lettuces aren't shaded by tall vining beans and cucumbers or bushy tomatoes.

To Prepare Beds, if its an already established bed, I double dig (which is essentially tilling gently with a shovel) and add composted manure and some sawdust. If its an unestablished bed and I have the energy, I do the same, but then cover the tilled part with newspaper before piling the compost and sawdust on top. If I'm feeling lazy (as being 7 months pregnant tends to do), I lay the newspaper pretty thick right on top of the grass and pile the compost and sawdust on top and pray the grass dies before it pushes up. I don't recommend this version in the spring or summer as the grass is just way to hearty then.

To Plant Seeds, I put them in seed cups filled with about 2 parts compost to 1 part sawdust and elevate them above the ground to keep down the bug activity. Some have major problems with squirrels, but I think that can be solved just by keeping them in a higher traffic area where human smell is detectable to them. I have more of a problem with an 18 month old dirt loving boy so my seed station is on top of a pile of wood pallets and I tend to get good rates.

To Protect the Garden, determine what you're protecting from. DON"T put your garden right next to woods where any critter under the sun can come out and munch and quickly be home again. We have one garden fenced with wood pallets and the other fenced with standard 3 foot rabbit guard fencing. Our main pests are gopher tortoises and rabbits though the fence does wonders to ward off little humans as well. 3' is nice because its still easy enough to step over and a gate does not need to be installed. We do have a "gate" where a pallet can be removed somewhat easily to allow wheelbarrow access, but its not simple enough for daily or twice daily removal for quick harvesting. Keep your garden accessible to you, but not little critters. Don't try to keep out raccoons... it won't work. Just harvest before they do.