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Lessons from the Winter High Tunnel

Winter Crops in High Tunnel

This is the first year I have tried growing crops in the winter. Since this is the first year with the new high tunnel, I’m on a rather steep learning curve at this point. I consider this entire season an experiment, so I’m collecting loads of data: how often to water, when to plant, how fast things grow in the cold, lots of good info. Hopefully the end result is a more productive winter season next year.

Here’s the top ten things I’ve discovered so far:

  • Cut-and-come again type plants seem to be the most successful. Lettuces, Spinach, and Swiss Chard are all growing at a good pace, and can be harvested about once a week or so.
  • Collards and turnips can be planted fairly late, even in November (zone 7b) and will grow like crazy. Broccoli and Kale will not. I think to have a decent winter crop of Kale and Broccoli, they need to be in the ground by mid-September.
  • High tunnels are a great place to overwinter root vegetables like carrots, onions, and leeks. These can be planted quite densely, at 2-3 inches apart and do very well. Harvest some in early winter, then leave the rest to get a jump on Spring.
  • Even in our zone, the “edge effect” is something that has to be addressed. After a week of below-freezing nights, the outside rows of the tunnel froze, even on the south side, which surprised me. Future crops in those rows will need frost covers to remain harvestable.
  • The ventilation fans need to be running most of the time. Otherwise there is enough condensation that the plants get wet. Wet, cold plants are not happy plants. I turn the fans off in the afternoon if the tunnel is dry, but then turn them back on again at sunset.
  • Because plants respire more slowly, watering is essentially a once a week thing. I also have to make sure to not over-water, because it takes quite some time to dry out. And then the spinach turns yellow (ask me how I know).
  • It is possible to replant a crop with direct sowing, but it takes forever to grow. So start plants in a warm house or germination chamber first, then move them to the high tunnel.
Frozen Bok Choi

  • Frozen hoses are a drag. So each time I irrigate, I drain the hoses when I’m done. This is a time-consuming and somewhat irksome task, but I think I have a solution: heated water hoses. These are made for RV’s and are simply a water hose with a built-in heat tape. Fortunately, our outside outlets are close enough to the water spigot that this will work. I just need to order them (they are a bit pricey). But yay for small victories.
  • Bury the irrigation lines. I was hesitant to do this because I was worried the emitters would get clogged up. Having now nipped an irrigation line at least once every time I harvest, I now understand the logic behind this recommendation. Buried it is.
  • Put an on/off valve on each irrigation line. Plants have widely varying water needs. What will keep one plant happy will drown another. Not all the beds need to be watered every time. This could probably be automated with timers, and that is something I may look at in the Spring or Summer when watering demands are higher. For now the valves work great, and they are a cheap solution.

So there you have it. Lessons from my winter high tunnel. I hope you found a few tidbits that were helpful!

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Winterizing the Chicken Coop

Chickens are hardy little creatures, and will adapt to most climates. One of the challenges here in Oklahoma is building animal shelters for both extreme heat and extreme cold. We opted to build a coop that allows lots of breezes and ventilation in the long, hot summer. The coop has soffit and roofs vents for heat to escape, along with windows that open to the north and south to pull the prevailing winds through the coop. The coop is sited next to a grove of trees that keep it shaded throughout most of the day. So it works great in the summer, but come wintertime, a little work must be done to keep my hens warm and happy.

The most important thing in the winter is to make sure the coop is draft-free. Chickens can retain a lot of body heat simply by lifting their feathers, but drafts reduce the effectiveness of this heat-saving ability. To eliminate drafts, we covered the windows, soffit vents, and the north side roof vent with plastic. The south-side roof vent allows for ventilation so moisture and ammonia can escape without letting in the frigid north winds. Plastic is an inexpensive and very effective way to stop wind from moving through the coop.

Chicken coops should not be insulated because it provides a place for vermin, and more importantly, mites, to live in your coop. A mite-infested coop will affect your flock’s health and production. However, our metal coop needed some insulation from the cold north winds. So we decided to stack organic straw bales on the north and west outside walls. It has made a huge difference in the ambient temperature of the coop. In the recent 10 degree weather, the inside of the coop was comfortably cool. In the Spring, the straw will be used to help with muddy spots in the yard, then put in the compost pile this summer to become eventually soil.

Straw bale insulate the coop against cold northwest winds

Another way we prepare the coop for winter is to use the deep litter method from late Fall through Spring. As microbes in the manure break down the litter, it generates heat. The litter needs to be turned occasionally, and fresh litter added when needed to keep down the odor. You can throw some scratch into the litter and let the chickens turn it for you and save some time!

The Deep Litter method generates heat to help warm the coop

The final step in winterizing our coop was installing caged heat lamps. The use of heat lamps is the subject of some debate, and there are both pros and cons to using them. Installed improperly, heat lamps can be a fire hazard. Clamp mounts, which are fine for a chick brooder, should not be used with full grown birds who are large and strong enough to knock a clamped light down. Instead, fixtures should be permanently mounted so they stay put. With full grown birds, it’s also a good idea to get a caged fixture so bird don’t injure themselves on a hot bulb. The second issue with heat lamps is that some sources say chickens may not sleep well with light from lamps. Other articles state that chickens don’t perceive the red light as daylight and it doesn’t affect them. Since I can’t ask the chickens, I have the lamps, but only turn them on if its below 20 degrees outside.

Those who live in climates that are consistently colder may not need to use heat lamps, as the birds acclimate to the usual weather. It is the sudden, dramatic cold snaps that we have in Oklahoma that are the problem. When it’s 65 degrees one day and 10 degrees the next, it’s hard on the chickens. During last year’s cold snap, some of our chickens ended up with frozen combs or chilblains on their feet. So this year we turn on the heat lamps when needed. A sleep-deprived hen will most definitely recover more quickly than a hen with frostbite injuries.

The lamps we use were purchased from QC Supply. They are hung in the coop using eye hooks, so the hens can’t knock them down. The bulb sits up in the fixture, not down in the cage, so the chickens can’t get burned by the bulb. We have the cords attached to a single power strip so we can turn them all off or on at once. They were a little pricey, at about $40 each, but I feel like a safer fixture was worth the money. I also like the look of them better than the cheap-o fixtures.

The best thing about winterizing our coop it that I don’t have to worry about my chickens. Last year we ended up moving them into the shop, and using the bathroom as a coop. That was quite the mess to clean up, and I’ll be happy to never do it again!

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Green Chile Cornbread

Green Chile Cornbread

Winter ushered in the New Year with quite the icy cold blast and a touch of snow. So the plan for today is to start a fire, snuggle in, and enjoy a lazy day inside. And it’s a perfect day to make some home made Chili and Cornbread. Although truth be told, in this case it should probably be called Cornbread and Chili because this recipe is just amazing!

This is a moist, dense cornbread with just the right amount of grit, but calorie counters beware! It’s also comfort food at it’s buttery, decadent best. We cook it as an occasional indulgence, and it’s always a treat. I’ve never been able to decide if I like it best with Chili for dinner, or as breakfast the next day, heated up and crumbled in milk. Either way, it’s just too good not to share.

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Green Chile Cornbread

A Dense, moist green chile cornbread, made with hatch chiles, corn and cream cheese.

Course: Breads

Cuisine: Southern

Main Ingredient: Cornmeal

Prep Time: 10 min

Cook Time: 35 min

Total Time: 45 min

Yield: 12

Serves:

Ingredients

  • 1 14 cups fine cornmeal
  • 1 14 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 12 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 14 cup sugar
  • 12 cup unsalted butter softened
  • 12 cup Softened Cream Cheese
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 14 cups milk
  • 2 cups chopped, roasted green chiles or mild canned green chiles
  • 1 cup creamed corn

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease two cast iron skillets or 13×9 baking dish.
  2. Make the batter: In a large bowl whisk together the cornmeal, flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. In a separate bowl, beat the softened butter and sugar. Beat the cream cheese and eggs into the butter-sugar mixture. Add the milk and the dry ingredients, a third at a time, and alternating wet/dry. Mix in the green chiles and corn. Pour mixture into cast iron skillets or greased baking dish.
  3. Bake at 400°F for 35 minutes, or until top is browned, and a fork inserted into the center comes out clean. Serve warm, not hot.

Amount Per Serving (12)

  • Calories: 300
  • Protein: 8 g
  • Sugar: 6 g
  • Carbohydrate: 33 g
  • Fat: 15 g
  • Cholesterol: 68 mg
  • Sodium: 678 mg
  • Fiber: 2 g

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On Second Chances


The thing about second chances is that they rarely happen by accident. Rather, I think they are culmination of time, experience, and the wisdom to recognize that you even need a second chance. Then it’s up to you to create it.


After many years of living “the American Dream” of a bigger house, newer cars, and more stuff, I gradually realized that stuff doesn’t equate to happiness. Not even close. So we downsized; a little at first, then a whole lot more. I might have even gone a little over the edge with the whole minimalist thing. But just a little. Still, that minimalist journey led to the desire to live more simply, which eventually led to homesteading, and that eventually led to Tanglefoot Farm. And here we are. I only wish we’d made it here a little sooner.

At Tanglefoot Farm, we are creating a self-sufficient lifestyle. We run on grid-tied solar and use appropriate technology. We grow food naturally and preserve the harvest. We work to restore fertility to our land and improve wildlife habitat. There are cover crops and earthworms, chickens and wildlife. We have small fields and covered tunnels to grow in, and wild spaces along the creek for the birds, foxes, and other critters. We live a lot closer to nature now, and I spend my free time digging in the garden, watching chickens and squirrels, and inventing projects to keep my ever-patient husband busy.

There is always something that needs doing on a farm. From daily chores like feeding and caring for chickens, to gigantic projects like building a high tunnel. We are constantly learning and improving our practices, and I’m excited to share what’s going here at the farm, and the progress we are making towards our goal of living sustainably and self-sufficiently.

Tanglefoot. Where we raise chickens, grow food, and live a happy life. Be sure to stop back by and I’ll show ya around!