7 Chicks-A-Hatching!

This time of year always feels magical to me- as if anything is possible. You can just feel it in the air- all of the goodwill, warm spirits and excitement- it feels like being a kid again, when everything felt full of wonder.  I felt that same wonder when I walked into our chicken coop to gather eggs, and  I found seven fuzzy little presents tucked below our two Columbian Rock hens. Though well out of season for hatching chicks, these two white and black hens have been anxiously sharing a nest, a process we call “dumping”. The two laid in the same nest, taking turns keeping the eggs warm. In warmer months when laying is more common, this can actually kill the chicks, as they get too warm with the dual body heat, but since we’ve been getting so cold at night here in zone 7, it was necessary for the chicks’ survival.

We leave the lights on in the coop at night to reschedule the hens’ natural cycle, encouraging them to lay eggs throughout the winter. When daylight hours begin to shorten, leaving the lights on for longer periods of time will stimulate the hens’ pituitary glands and trick them into continuously laying eggs. This doesn’t harm the chickens, and we get to enjoy fresh eggs all year round! Though this was a man-made miracle, we were still in awe that these little guys had hatched. I guess it was only a matter of time before our plucky little rooster was able to woo these two ladies, resulting in our newest little additions. I guess you just can’t stop nature’s agenda!

We love the Columbian Rocks because of their beautiful markings and small stature. Though we know we should have kept a closer eye on our randy rooster, the chicks will have a warm home in our brood house, which is filled with straw and heat lamps to keep them nice and cozy. Both mothers and the seven chicks are all doing great and enjoying all of the warmth and attention.

We hope that this season holds all of the awe and wonder for you and yours, that we felt upon finding these little guys this morning. I think that’s one of the best parts of this time of year, the childlike wonder that we all recall that allows us to pause and appreciate family and friends. From all of us to all of you, we hope you have a wonderfully warm holiday season, and keep your eyes open for everyday wonder!

Win the Battle of the Bugs With Herbs

For many of us on the East Coast (particularly MD, DC and VA), this time of year not only marks the first warm weeks which hint of the coming spring season; it means to prepare for the invasion. It’s not a terrorist or nuclear threat we’re talking about…it’s something far smellier: stinkbugs. In 2010 our region suffered a swarm of these foul little pests and as we begin seeing warmer weather in this (hopefully) early spring, they are beginning to settle in like unwanted house guests.

Though they don’t bite or sting, they do emit a pretty putrid odor when crushed, smooshed, vacuumed up, or squished, and though they are more of an annoyance for homeowners, local farmers are beginning to fret. Stinkbugs prey on crops like raspberries, tomatoes, peaches and other fruits, sucking the juices out of them and leaving them undesirable. Especially in the organic farming community, who strive not to use harmful pesticides, concern is on the rise.  So, what is your best line of garden defense against these pungent perpetrators?  The all natural answer is herbs!

Don't let this happen to your home!

Strongly scented herbs such as Mint, Lavender, Catnip, and Patchouli have been proven to thwart the little stinkers from overwhelming you favorite fruits and veggies. (It’s hard to believe that they are picky about smells…I guess everyone likes their own brand!) You can also try planting other natural insect deterrents around your home or garden like Tansy, ‘Citronella’ Scented Geraniums, Pyrethrums and Rue to keep the bugs at bay. For the insidious insects that have already made it indoors, try making sachets with some of these herbs or use their essential oils to coat your window sills and thresholds. This will hopefully keep the rest of the stinkbugs from sneaking in and joining their friends inside your nice warm home. You can also fill jars with soapy water to catch the critters that have already begun to show up indoors, as the soap will dissolve their exoskeleton, killing them in a non-toxic way.

In conjunction with February being National Bird Feeding Month, try attracting birds to your garden with feeders, houses and baths, to keep your bug problem to a minimum. We’ve heard that blue jays are fond of these stinky little snacks, so encourage them and other seed-eating friends to nest around your yard to prevent the problem from getting out of hand. Bats also find stink bugs to be a delicacy, so place bat boxes throughout your yard and near the garden to help battle the bugs.

Living With Wild Geese

Photo Courtesy of Brad Fenson

Working in the greenhouse today, we were lured from our mundane task by the uproar of several hundred, maybe a thousand Canadian Geese in the adjacent field. After a few moments of loud and excited goose talk, we all ran outside to see them fly over. Whatever it was that scared them was not so bad because most settled back where they began. Some landed in the field beyond our orchard, giving us a clear view of flock after flock gliding in on set wings.
We went back to work when most of the birds had settled back in the fields, foraging ravenously before the next cold weather arrives. And we went back to inventory. But even counting everything is not so bad when you can take a break with the neighbors every now and then.

"That Damn Bird!"

Cardinal

Though beautiful, cardinals can be extremely vain!

Recently, at the end the day, I noticed a departing greenhouse worker remove a plastic nursery pot from each  rear view mirror and stow them in his tool box.  Old memories awakened as I asked him what was up with his mirrors. “That damn bird!” was his answer, and I knew a red bird had found his truck.

For as long as our greenhouses have been here, people working there have parked outside. And just as long, cardinals have found themselves irresistible in our rear view mirrors. Or maybe they see a rival that s equally matched? Whatever they see, it causes them to stay a long time and return frequently. And while they are looking deeply into the mirror, they are also digesting and leaving their droppings in large quantities. The mess is even worse when car windows are left down, then the inside is fouled too.

To keep our vehicles clean, we have to hide our mirrors from narcissistic birds!

Over the years, employees have tried various methods for stopping the cardinals from soiling their cars. Socks, hats, and various other items have been selected. But the best I have seen yet is an old nursery pot. We do try and cooperate with nature, but do not feel we need to share our vehicles with the birds.

Feed the Birds!

A Bird Buffet!

If your area is experiencing the extreme cold we here in Virginia have, you have probably not thought much about working in the garden. My yard is frozen solid so there is not much that could be done, even if one could stand the frigid temperatures.

Though working soil and plants is a long way off, there is one garden chore we can still do. Feed the birds. Birds don’t just make for an amusing source of natural entertainment, they’re also vital to your garden. Birds help keep your garden pest free while also spreading necessary pollen from plant to plant to aide in plant fertilization. Without these valuable winged friends, we’d be lost, so if you take care of them, they’ll take care of you (and your garden)!

Like many gardeners, I keep several bird feeders in the yard. During cold snaps like this one, the birds need all the help they can get, and respond quickly to any food offered to them. They empty my feeders quickly and sometimes eat it all before they can be refilled. When I go out to refill them, I hear birds chirping and singing as if they know what I am doing. And they do know because the feeders are occupied by the time I am back indoors. Other birds hear the commotion and pretty soon the trees around the feeders are full of birds trying to get to the feeders.

You can also spread seed or place fruit like apples and pears along your porch rails or strung together with a needle and thread and tied to a tree branch, for an added variety of food to attract different types of birds this winter! Try recording how many new varieties you come across and keep a bird journal of their favorite foods, habits, and personalities.

Try adding nesting boxes or bird houses around your yard to encourage your feathered friends to stay longer! Purple Martins, Gold Finches and Bluebirds, to name a few, are very appreciative of a safe, dry place to nest. You can even grow your own! Try growing gourds this year and let them dry. Cut a hole for an opening and hang it for a natural bird abode. Keep your houses and nesting boxes out of the reach of children and pets and do not disturb them for happier house guests.

Birdbaths are good for more than bathing!

Even if it’s freezing out, birds also still need a clean water source. Try using one of our birdbaths this winter. You may have to break a little ice each morning to add fresh water, but we promise the birds will thank you. Place your feeders and birdbaths near your porch or window and enjoy the natural entertainment all year long!

Birds are an important part of my yard and garden, they bring action, color, and life. So do not forget them in these tough times and take time to feed the birds!

For more tips on feeding birds through the winter, check our article on caring for birds during the winter.

Release the Hounds (or Mantises!)

One of our smallest employees at The Growers Exchange!

Our babies have arrived! Our Praying Mantis eggs have hatched! For those of you who didn’t catch our previous blog on natural pest deterrents, we collected Praying Mantis eggs from the cedar trees we use as a wind break and placed them in our greenhouses. While looking at the Comfrey today, we noticed the little Mantises crawling all over the leaves! We looked at the egg sac above the Comfrey and it had hatched. We even found one with a small beetle! Great work little guys, we’re glad to have you on our green team!

Speaking of Comfrey, we have lots that are now going dormant but still have strong root structures. These plants will establish over the Winter and appear in Spring as much bigger plants. For any gardeners still looking for Comfrey this season, we’re putting them on sale soon so keep an eye on our site– and we know they’ll be bug free because we have our little friends tending them!