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Feeding your family for less

By Staff | Mar 23, 2009

Sylvia Streufert raises a selection of vegetables, flowers and herbs from seed each year to save money and add variety to her gardens.

LAKE CITY – While it’s possible to spend a small fortune on a garden, developing your green thumb can help you save money, if you make smart choices.

“I’ve been starting seeds for 25 years, and the process can be as simple as you want it to be,” said Sylvia Streufert, an avid gardener from Lake City who enjoys raising vegetables, herbs and flowers.

One of the biggest gardening trends in 2009 is the increasing interest in vegetable gardening, said Dale Lindgren, horticulturist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Last year, vegetable plant sales were up 10 to 15 percent, and that trend is expected to continue.

Also popular are blended gardens, which include both edible ornamental vegetables and flowering plants, Lindgren noted.

Today’s gardens are being dubbed “stimulus gardens,” since the concept is the modern equivalent of the Victory Gardens that were planted by Americans across the nation during World War II.

Longtime gardener Sylvia Streufert, of Lake City, enjoys starting seeds in early spring on her south-facing porch.

“In these bad economic times, the theme might be, “Plant a vegetable garden, make your dollar go further,'” said Ron Wolford, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

Get growing

To get started this spring, it helps to brush up on some seed-starting basics:

  • Choose easy seeds. According to the IowaGardener.com, some of the easiest vegetables and fruit to start from seed include tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, lettuce, spinach and other greens, radishes and melons.

Among the easiest annuals and perennials to start from seed are bachelor’s buttons, cleome, cosmos, marigolds, snapdragons, sunflowers, and zinnias.

In 2008, Streufert started 40 marigold plants from seed to plant in her garden borders.

  • Gather basic supplies. Plastic seed starting trays, flower pots, cardboard egg cartons, milk cartons with the tops cut off, Styrofoam cups, and plastic snack bags can make suitable environments for seed starting.

Sylvia Streufert overwinters slips of her favorite coleus plants, which root easily in water.

While Streufert relies on seed starting trays purchased years ago at the dime store, she also uses plastic cups with small drainage holes poked in the bottom for starting heat-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers.

Streufert also germinates seeds by positioning them on one half of a moist paper towel, folding the other half of the towel over the seeds, and placing the seeds and paper towel inside a clear, resealable, airtight plastic snack bag labeled with the type of seeds inside and the date they were started.

After closing the plastic zipper, she places the bag in a warm spot, such as the top of the refrigerator. She checks the bag every few days to allow air to circulate and to see if the seeds have started to germinated. If the paper towels have started to dry out, they can also be re-moistened with a little water at this time.

  • Timing is everything. Most annual vegetables and flowers should be started six to eight weeks before the last frost date – around mid-May in the northern half of Iowa and closer to May 10 for the southern half of Iowa.

Some seeds, such as peppers, need to be started eight to 10 weeks before the last frost date, while others such as eggplants and broccoli only require four to six weeks, Streufert said. Check the seed packet for more details.

  • Water seeds carefully. Seed-starting containers should be covered with plastic (either clear plastic film or a clear plastic lid) to hold in moisture. Don’t allow the seed starting medium to dry out, but avoid overwatering, as well. Use a spray bottle, or set the container in a tray filled with water halfway up the sides of the container so water can seep up from the bottom through the drainage holes. Remove the container from the water after the soil surface becomes moist.
  • Provide ample light. While grow lights are an excellent option, Streufert gets good results by starting seeds in her bright, south-facing porch. She watches the temperature closely, however, especially in the early part of the process. “If the temperature is forecasted to drop below 50 degrees at night, I bring the containers in the house in the evening if I’m starting heat-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers.”
  • Harden-off the seedlings. To prepare young seedlings to move from the safe confines of a porch or windowsill, set their containers outside for a few hours a day in a protected spot, and steadily increase this time for about a week. This will help the young plants adjust to their new home in the garden when they are planted.

“Gardening is a process where you are always learning,” said Streufert, who uses a simple computer spreadsheet to track which varieties of plants she grows each year. “It’s also a great past-time that can be a lot of fun, too.”

Geraniums can be overwintered in paper grocery sacks and jumpstarted again in late winter so the plants are ready for spring planting.

Contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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Feeding your family for less

By Staff | Mar 23, 2009

Across the country, interest in small poultry flocks is growing. According to Extension specialists, some people have expressed a need to feel more self sufficient, especially with the current slowed economy and recent food safety issues.

LAKE CITY – Maybe it’s the slumping economy, or the interest in locally-grown foods, but Extension specialists and poultry enthusiasts around the Midwest are receiving a lot more questions about raising small flocks of chickens, than in previous years.

“Judging by the number of phone calls and e-mails received in my office, it seems that public interest in owning a few chickens for a home flock is on the upswing,” says Scott Beyer, a poultry specialist with Kansas State University Extension.

Raising chickens as a hobby is catching on across the nation, and flocks aren’t found only in rural areas. In late 2008, for example, Newsweek magazine covered”The new coop de ville: The craze for urban poultry farming.”

Closer to home, people are increasingly interested in small poultry flocks for 4-H and FFA projects.

“Poultry make an excellent starting project, since they consume much less feed than some other livestock,” Beyer said. “Plus, they require less space and don’t require expensive equipment.”

Jacob Lauver, of Lake City, has raised chickens since he joined the Jackson Pioneers 4-H Club in fourth grade and uses this converted shed to house his birds.

Jacob Lauver, 15, a freshman at Southern Cal High School, in Lake City, has raised chickens since he joined the Jackson Pioneers 4-H Club in fourth grade. “I think chickens are pretty cool, and they are easy to raise.”

Starting from scratch

Lauver offers these tips for a successful, small-scale poultry operation:

  • Research the breeds. Lauver said he’s had good luck with Old English birds, and reliable egg layers such as Rhode Island Reds and Barred Rocks. Chicks can be purchased from mail-order hatcheries like Murray McMurray (mcmurrayhatchery.com) in Webster City or from local farm supply stores.

Many chicks cost approximately $1.50 to $3 each. Lauver also adds to his flock at the Exotic Bird & Animal Swap, which is held each April at the Bremer County Fairgrounds in Waverly.

  • Provide proper housing. When Lauver buys chicks in the spring, he suspends a heat lamp over an old stock tank to keep the young birds warm. As the birds mature, an igloo-style dog house and kennel can work well to house a small flock of two to three chickens. For a large flock, a small coop works well (many plans are available online), as long as a minimum of two to three square feet of shelter are included per chicken.

Also, he said, provide a place for the birds to roost. Lauver, whose flock usually ranges from 25 to 30 birds, has adapted a small shed located between two larger farm sheds for his chicken coop. A fenced-in area about 6- to 7-feet tall is also important to allow the birds to access the outdoors while offering protection from predators like coyotes, fox and raccoons.

  • Serve up the right feed. Lauver uses basic trough feeders designed for poultry. Chickens have different nutrient requirements at different stages of life and a variety of feed options are available.

Jacob Lauver prefers galvanized poultry waterers for his flock.

Lauver, who has raised as many as 70 birds at one time and won a grand champion award at the 2007 Iowa State Fair, starts his birds on a chick ration and switches to a lay or pullet ration as the birds grow. He buys 50-pound bags of feed, which cost approximately $7 to $10 and last about a week or more with a flock of 20 to 25 birds.

Since chickens like to eat insects, their feed consumption may drop a little when insects are plentiful, added Lauver, who noted that he has had very few disease problems in his flock.

  • Supplement the basic rations. When the birds are young, Lauver supplies electrolytes to keep the chickens healthy. “You also can feed your chickens fruit and vegetable scraps,” added Lauver, whose birds especially like corncobs and watermelon rinds.
  • Drink up. Always provide chickens with plenty of clean, fresh water. Lauver prefers galvanized waterers, which are less expensive than polyethylene waterers. “With chicks, it’s important to dip their beaks in the water so they know where to get a drink,” added Lauver, who recommends keeping the water and feed fresh daily.
  • Look for the right litter. Use a good, absorbent litter material for bedding in the chicken coop. Lauver recommends pine wood shavings for chicks, and straw for larger birds. Stir the litter periodically so it doesn’t get packed down, said Lauver, who cleans the litter every few weeks and avoids using newspaper for bedding, because it doesn’t work very well.
  • Ease the transition. Since a pecking order exists in any flock, it’s important to be careful when adding new birds to an existing group. “Let the chickens get used to each other first,” said Lauver, who noted that Bantams can be especially aggressive. “I put the new birds inside a cage with food and water and set the cage in the pen for a day or two before I put all the birds together.”
  • Enjoy the benefits. A chicken produces about one egg per day, said Lauver, who doesn’t keep his birds through the winter, but has sold them at auctions. “I’ve learned a lot since I started raising chickens, and now I’m trying to focus on raising quality birds.”

Contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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Jacob Lauver has won a number of awards at the Cherokee County fair and the Iowa State Fair for his chickens, which he learned to care for by reading books designed for people interested in starting their own flock.