30 September 2012

Living With Chickens

Since getting chickens more than a year ago, we've had our share of drama, but nothing compares to what has happened this summer.  When we first got our flock, there was some pecking order issues and they had a tendency to prefer our neighbors' yards rather than ours.   They settled down and we put up more fencing and let them free-range in the back yard during the day.  It was fun having them always roaming the yard, finding insects and chasing each other around.  While our first set of chicks were growing up, they, along with their mother, decided they liked our neighbor's yard.  After plugging most of the holes, they decided the front yard looked good - eventually they were contained.

I was growing the bulk of our vegetables in the back yard, but I knew having chickens might be a problem.  I postponed planting the garden in order to let the chickens dig around in it, thinking they might mostly leave it along after I planted it - they did not.  I experimented with fencing off the garden - it kept the chickens out, but it kept me out too.

This summer has seen hawks attacking our second set of chicks and Robin being attacked by our rooster, who, we think, is under the impression she is another rooster.  We thought the dogs would eventually get used to the chickens, but it seems to have only gotten worse.

So, you see, we have some issues with our chickens right now.  As much as I like them roaming the yard, this summer has given us reason to contain them.  I want to give them as much room as they want, but I want to keep them safe, and I want us to be able to use the yard however we want.  The conclusion I came to was to build a fence - but exactly where?  I want it to be easy to put up, and placed somewhere that will give them, as well as us, the proper space.  The area that I'm thinking of will give them plenty of space to roam, and I'll be able to better protect them from predators - and I can plant my garden again!  I may let them roam in the evening, but I'll have to keep an eye on them around the veggies.

27 September 2012

Master Gardener Secrets

At the Master Gardener Office, you're put to the test - there is no way to anticipate what problem you might have to solve.  I don't know how other people do it, but I have figured out something that makes it a little easier.

Let's say someone comes by with an insect that they need us to identify.  I can almost say for certain that I won't know what kind of insect it is.  I'll ask questions about where it was found, what type of plant it was on, etc.  I'll use that information, and look up the most common pests of the plant it was found on.  If I need to see an image, I'll do that as well.  I can say that most of the time this is a good strategy.  It works the same way when people call about insects or plant damage as well.  Did I mention plant diseases and other problems?  The same goes for them too.  Start with the most common problems, and you can't lose.

For example, this past week at the office a man brought in several larvae he found in a house.  He said that he had removed a bee hive from the same area the week before.  I thought of hive beetles, but I went to ask an agent instead.  She did an image search of several other things that it might be, before we tried "hive beetle larva".  That's what they turned out to be - the most common pest for that particular situation.

This aphorism is used in medical school, but it applies equally well here:  "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras."  When presented with a simple and a complex solution, the simple one is probably best.

23 September 2012

Fifth Annual Fall Park Circle Plant Swap

To the swap
We've been going to these plant swaps for at least five years and we usually have a lot of fun.  Sometimes it's a little disappoint- ing when someone gets that one plant you had your heart set on, or when you see something afterward that you would have picked up if you had seen it earlier.  We have also gone through a change of attitude toward then over the years - in the beginning we were just excited over free plants, but then we became a little more discerning, and practical.  What I have noticed at the fall swaps is that people will bring their leftover annuals - if not seedlings, then vegetables or something else that won't last past the first frost, which I have the same problem with, since we have a less that ideal home for these.

From the swap
I know I'm being a little critical - these swaps have been really fun, and I've gotten a lot of great plants from them over the years ...and I wasn't even able to attend yesterday's.  I know I will continue to go to Darren's plant swaps, but they have grown into something they weren't five years ago.  When I started going, they were a little more intimate, but still had tons of plants.  I was still a little green, and got excited about.  And maybe I'm a little disappointed in the plants that I was able to take as well.  I remember looking at them as I was labeling them thinking, "really?  These same plants again?"  So, without further ado, the plants that Robin took to the swap:

Purple Water Iris
Purple-stemmed Elephant Ears
Native Hibiscus seedlings
Dwarf Papyrus
Root Beer Plant
A few small Agave Americanas

And, what Robin brought home from the swap:

A couple of small shrubs
A few different succulents
A few gardenias
and a Dianthus

19 September 2012

Local Feed and Seed Sources - 2012

I've been going to the feed store a lot lately and I thought I would write an update to past posts on the subject of feed and seed sources.  Let me begin by saying that Red Top Feed & Farm Supply still is number one in my book, but, that being said, I have been to Dorchester Feed & Supply a number of times, mostly because it was convenient.  I took a gardening class at the Exchange Park, and just a few miles down the road is Dorchester Feed.  The first week, I stopped by there to get some starter feed for our baby chicks.  The next week, I bought a couple of bales of hay.  Each time I was there, I noticed that they had lots of seeds for sale.  I went back next week and bought a bunch of seeds and some broccoli plants.

I have to say that I really liked the fact that they had so many different seeds - four kinds of squash, two kinds of radishes, two kinds of lettuce, etc.  I was off the other day and had plans to go to Red Top Feed to get chicken supplies - layer feed, scratch feed, bedding - and while I was there I decided to ask about spinach seeds.  They don't have their seed inventory on display, so I never thought to buy it there.  They had it, and probably everything else that the other feed store had, but since it wasn't on display, I didn't think about it.

 I still like Red Top Feed and will continue to go there for my usual supplied, but I may call before making a seed-buying trip.  That goes for any of them.  Since buying seeds recently, it doesn't look like I will need to go for a long time.  If you have read previous posts I mentioned a couple of other places, one of them was Tractor Supply.  I have to say that I don't think I've been there since I bought the fencing I used to make my trellises.  Not to say anyone shouldn't shop there, but I think I prefer going to a locally-owned business, and I don't think TS has the hay and seeds that Red Top or Dorchester has.

Red Top Feed and Tackle Shop
3815 Highway 17, Charleston
(843) 763-6651

Dorchester Feed and Supply
10310 Highway 78, Summerville
(843) 875-9776

16 September 2012


I know you've seen them - I have too, a lot, recently.  I realized that I didn't know anything about them, so I set out to learn more.

Lovebugs (plecia neartica) are related to flies (Diptera), and, if you're like me, you forget about them until they emerge and begin mating.  That's what I've been seeing this week.  They usually have two life cycles per year - in the spring and now, in the fall.  Females deposit their eggs in damp areas - ditches, swamps, etc.  After hatching, the larva live in grassy areas, feeding on decaying plant material.  After the larva go through several stages, they pupate for about eight days, emerging as an adult after that.

Females live for about four days, and males a little longer, so it's very important that they find each other and mate - As we have all seen, they seem to spend their whole adult life attached.  Since they are a problem only twice a year (three in Florida), there hasn't been a lot of research put into controlling them.  Not a lot is known about the larval stages on this insect.  It is suspected that various fungi act as a biological control.

So what can be done about them?  Not much.  They're not around long enough do anything.  The drought we're having probably helps, but not if you live near water, like we all do.  Just know that fall has arrived.

12 September 2012

5th Annual Fall Park Circle Plant Swap - September 22nd

It's that time of year again - the fall plant swap.  I can't believe it's been five years.  The spring swap has been going on a lot longer, but I've been to every one of the swaps in the fall.  Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend this time.  I have to say that I'm not too upset - I've been to a lot of these and each time I get pickier.  This year will be a surprise - I'm putting plants together for Robin to take, and we've come up with a list of plants we both want, so I'm going to leave it up to her and be surprised when I get home in the afternoon.  I'll try to do my usual before and after posts, but we'll have to see about that.

For more information about the plant swap, click here.

When to Apply Pre-Emergent Herbicides

Here in coastal South Carolina, we are approaching the time in the fall when pre-emergent herbicides need to be applied.  What are they, you ask? Herbicides are chemicals that kill plants.  Most people are familiar with post-emergent herbicides that kill actively-growing weeds.  Pre-emergent herbicides do their job as the weed seed is germinating - that's why the timing of their application is critical.  Too early and it is washed away.  Too late and the weed is past the point of being affected by the herbicide.

So, when should you apply pre-emergent herbicide in the fall?  Where I live, it is typically during the second half of September, but there is a universal way to get the timing right no matter where you live.  When nighttime temperatures reach 55-60 degrees for four consecutive days, it is time to apply the pre-emergent herbicide.  This will control seed germination of winter annuals - perennial weeds, such as Florida Betony, will not be affected.

What about spring?  Here,  PE is applied around March 1st, but, for everyone else,  it is when high temperatures reach 65-70 degrees for four consecutive days.

Florida Betony
Since we're talking about applying chemicals to lawns, I thought I would talk about something that some of the master gardeners feel very strongly about:  Don't use "weed and feed" products.  These products have both a pre-emergent herbicide and fertilizer in a single product.  They should not be used on lawns in our area, and probably throughout the south.  As discussed before, PE typically will be applied around March 1st, when weed seeds are germinating.  Fertilizer should not be applied to lawns until lawns have completely "greened up", probably in late April.  If it is applied early, it will control weed germination, but will burn the still-dormant grass.  If applied later, the effect of the PE will be significantly diminished.  The best course of action is to buy separate products, applying the PE earlier and the fertilizer after the lawn has greened up.

09 September 2012

Chicken Drama

Some of our chickens can be a little high-strung.  One of our Rhode Island Reds is very vocal about wanting out of the coop in the morning and also about wanting a treat.  Some of the bantams will squawk at the smallest thing.  And they all get a little upset when we let the dogs out.  But there has been cause for alarm recently.

We had the covered area on the side of our house still set up as a "chicken nursery" when it was time to hatch our second set of chicks.  It had its flaws, but, for the most part, it was nearly the same as it was when we hatched the first chicks.  The only thing different was part of the fencing was two feet tall instead of four feet.  During the first couple of weeks after the seven chicks hatched, something must have attacked them during the night.  I found the mother out of the nursery and sitting on her chicks near the hen house.  When it got light enough, I discovered there were only five.  Within a few days she and her chicks were living in the hen house and getting along with all the other chickens.

I've always assumed that there were always hawks around our house.  I felt like we really didn't know the extent of it, since we're not in the yard from sunrise to sunset.  But we have been seeing a lot more recently.  Earlier this week, between trips into the back yard, a hawk must have gotten one of our chicks.  We could not find it anywhere.  The next evening, Ella saw a hawk on top of our mother hen, and scared it off.  Then another evening a hawk must have gotten another chick, because, when I let the chicks out in the morning, I only counted three.  So we're down to three chicks.  Ella is a little upset about all of this, but there's not much more that we can do.  We just have to hope they grow up fast.

One of the hens we kept from our first set of chicks is suspected of being a rooster.  Back in August I heard a second crow coming from the hen house.  If you love your chickens as much as we do, it's a devastating sound - it means that you are going to have to get rid of one.  I wasn't sure which one it was, but I planned to find out.  I've given up on that for now, because we're pretty sure which one it is.  He has become more of an outcast from the flock and I think he's been bullied as well.  He's very skittish, even jumping when you throw food in his direction.  We were thinking about him the other day and I found him in the hen house - I grabbed him and Robin and I were able to get a good look at him.  He has what looks like a sore spot on his upper back, and he wasn't opening one of his eyes.  The eye thing was probably a fluke, because I saw both of them open today, but I am concerned.  I don't think there's much we can do for him.  Maybe he needs to become our personal pet chicken.

05 September 2012

How To Get a Soil Test

One thing that everyone should do before planting their garden, or even landscaping their yard is have the soil tested.  I have to admit that I had never done this - until last year.  Here's how you do it.

You need to get a representative sample of the area that you want tested, which means you should collect a dozen samples and combine it into one composite sample.  Soil samples should be collected from the surface to 6-8 inches deep.  Using a soil tube or auger is pretty straightforward, but if you are using a spade or trowel the technique is a bit different.  Dig a v-shaped hole about 6-8 inches deep and use your trowel or spade to take a thin slice from the side of the hole.  Combine all the soil samples in a clean bucket and mix them thoroughly.  You'll need at least two cups of soil per sample.  You can either take your sample to your local Clemson Extension office or purchase a soil sample mailer.

 About a week after I dropped off my soil samples at the Clemson Extension office, I received an email with a link to the results of my soil tests.  I had two different soil tests done - one for the vegetable garden and one for the beds in the front yard.  When you fill out the forms, it helps to let them know what you plan to plant and whether you want organic recommendations as well.  I thought I asked for both, but I only got inorganic recommendations.  Here is what the chemical analysis of my soil looks like:

The soil test found low levels of potassium; phosphorus and calcium levels were very high, which is common for this area.  To correct the potassium deficiency, it was recommended that I use muriate of potash.  Since I didn't get organic recommendations, I tried to learn more about these fertilizers and amendments, to understand what they were and what the organic alternatives were.  In general you can tell what an amendment is by the fertilizer grade.  I knew muriate of potash (MOP) was solely to correct the potassium deficiency, since the third number was so high, but I decided to read more.  MOP is actually potassium chloride and there are a lot of people out there that think it's harmful to soil biology, but others say it leaches out of the soil fairly quickly - and supposedly chloride increases yield by improving disease resistance.  Since I wasn't a fan of chlorine, I decided to see what my options were - it turns out that there are few.  Sulfate of potash is a common substitute, but it tends to be more expensive and it has less potassium (0-0-50), so you need more of it.  It is used for plants that are sensitive to chlorides.  An organic alternative to these are wood ashes.  They may contain around 6% potash, but they also contain lime which raises the pH of the soil, making it more alkaline.  There's no easy way of knowing how much potash is in it and, if you don't need lime, you shouldn't use it.

The other fertilizers are pretty straightforward.  10-10-10 is what it seems like and it turns out 15-0-15 is a common fertilizer for centipede grass.  I haven't looked into organic alternatives to these, but it seems easy enough.  Maybe it won't be in one product, but I'm sure there are things out there that are good substitutes for this.  That will have to be a future blog post.  For more information about soil tests, click here:

HGIC 1652 Soil Testing

03 September 2012

Fall Gardening

The weather right now isn't very convincing, but it is time for fall gardening - maybe even late.  Last week when I added the gardening calendar to the site, I realized that I was a little behind.  Still, I decided to plant everything I could.  There's still time for cool-season crops like broccoli, lettuce and radishes, but time is running out (or has run out) on late summer crops like beans and squash.  That's what I've been thinking about this weekend.

There's a feed store near where I've been attending a gardening class the past several Tuesdays - one time I bought chicken feed, another time hay.  I noticed that they had a large variety of seeds for sale.  Once I made the gardening calendar, I made plans to buy seeds for everything that I need to plant in the coming weeks, as well as what I should have planted already.  I bought a leaf lettuce, two types of radishes, two types of summer squash and two types of winter squash, and broccoli plants to transplant in the garden.
I put the broccoli in the other day and planted a few winter squash seeds, but saved the rest of my work until now.  I was looking up some of the seeds online last night to see if there was anything special I needed to know.  Mostly, I was curious about how long it would take them to reach maturity and whether the squash was a bush- or vine-type.  The "days to maturity" is important to know for the warm-seasons vegetables like beans and squash, because we have only a limited number of days until a frost.  Also, I planned to grow the squash on a trellis, so I wanted to know which ones would vine and which ones would bush.

The butternut squash I bought is 90-100 days, which means it's too late in the year to plant it.  Our first frost date is about November 20th, which gives me less than 90 days.  The other winter squash I bought is an acorn squash.  Its listed around 70-80 days, but it's a bush-type, which is not what I want for trellising.

I think I'm going to skip the squash this late in the season, go with the cool season crops - lettuce, radish and broccoli - and plant some beans, which, if they don't give me any pods, I can still turn them under, giving me a little nitrogen for my next planting.