In the Garden
Get down and dirty in the garden

Winter Care for Chickens

The main thing is to keep them happy. Here’s an easily doable checklist to keep your chickens happy and healthy.   


Chickens needs fresh water every day. When the temperature drops, they require extra water to stay hydrated. Periodically check to make sure the water has not frozen or use an electric heated chicken waterer. If you use electricity, for safety reasons make sure the extension cords are heavy-duty outdoor cords, not light-duty indoor cords. The water should be kept outside as chickens tend to upset the waterers and that makes for wet bedding.

Moisture is a killer to chickens. The coop must be kept dry or the chickens can easily get respiratory diseases. When the bedding gets very soiled, change it. Plain straw tends to get messy and slippery with chicken poop faster than shavings. I use 4 or more inches of cedar or pine shavings with a thick layer of straw on top. I use this combo in their nesting boxes as well. 

chicken coop in snow

Heat lamp in their coop? Only if it’s below freezing. Chickens will clump up on the roosts and in the nesting boxes to keep each other warm. They’re good at that! If a heat lamp is used, make sure that fresh air can circulate through the coop as this discourages diseases. Keep wind from blowing in the coop, but have some circulation going from the south side of the coop, if possible.

Extra food, especially protein, when it’s cold keeps their little furnaces going. Consider cooking up some ground meat or scramble some eggs to give to them. I always offer warm protein when it’s extra cold. Hang a big cabbage outside above the ground to give them something to do and prevent boredom.

chickens enjoying snow

Chickens don’t like to walk about in the snow, so throw down a thick layer of straw for them to encourage them to go outside and take in the fresh air.

My favorite chicken care book: Recipe For Raising Chickens by Minnie Rose Lovgreen was one of the very first books I read on chicken care. I fell in love with the delightful Minnie Rose and chickens directly after reading the words on the cover, “The main thing is to keep them happy.” Minnie Rose was born in 1888 in England and emigrated to Montreal in 1912. She was to board the Titanic, but its sailing time was delayed, so she traded in her ticket for another ship. Talk about fate! She moved to Bainbridge Island, WA in 1920, married Danish born Leo Lovgreen. Leo worked on a dairy farm and together they saved until they could build their own dairy.

Her simple yet effective advice on keeping chickens is not only a charming read, but incredibly informative. The beauty part of this book is that it’s both easy and fun to read and it was written by a woman who kept chickens for decades and spent an infinite amount of hours observing their behavior and needs. Her wise advice on keeping chickens healthy still serves today.

So there you have it — a recipe for keeping your chickens healthy and happy during the winter months!. See you around the chicken coop!

Grow Fresh Greens in Winter

You may already know that I live in the Central Valley of California. It hardly ever gets below freezing here and it has been particularly true this winter. So far it has gotten just to 32 degrees but not below. This is completely the opposite of points farther east and what I've experienced visiting my sister who lives outside Denver on the high plains. It's a blizzard out there and homegrown fresh greens are impossible unless you have a perfect green house set up. Unfortunately perfect green house set-ups are beyond most people but fresh greens are not because you can grow them on your kitchen counter. My favorite kind are sunflower sprouts.

I first had these easy to grow and tasty greens when I visited my daughter in Santa Cruz around Christmas time a couple years ago. We always eat at a vegetarian restaurant in Capitola called Dharma's. It's all vegetarian and they give you huge portions. When I go I always have the green salad and Kitcheree soup. On top of the salad you will find a giant pile of sunflower sprouts. You won't find sunflower sprouts in every supermarket unless you have a specialty store nearby and who needs to buy them anyway? If you grow your own you're assured that they will be sanitary and there's no possibility of salmonella.

What you need:

  • 75% coconut coir and 25% earthworm castings or a mix of potting soil and perlite
  • food grade black oil sunflower seeds (they have to be food grade because garden seed is treated)
  • water
  • leftover cinnamon roll tray with clear lid from the bakery or any container and plastic wrap


Mix equal parts perlite and potting soil or use the coconut coir and earthworm castings. 


Spread about 2 inches deep of this mix in your tray.


Spread a single layer of the seeds on the soil.


Sprinkle another 1/2" deep of the mix over the seeds. Moisten with water.



Cover with the tray top or plastic wrap and put in a safe place where the kiddies or the cats who haven't been counter trained can't reach it.


Check every day for a week and moisten as necessary. Nature will do her job and in a couple days you'll start to see sprouts.


In a week you'll have sprouts to clip off above soil level to put on your salad. If there are any seeds hulls clinging to the sprouts you can wait until they drop off naturally or you can very gingerly pull them off the leaves. Be careful not to break the leaf or pull the sprout out of the ground. If the hull won't budge leave it be.

The sprouts won't grow anymore after you clip them off. Just clean the soil off the roots and you can start all over again with the same soil. Just be aware that the roots will be embedded in to the soil and will take a bit of shaking to separate them.  The sprouts are sweetest when they are fresh. You don't even really need to wash them as you know exactly what went on to them as they grew. Nothing!


Food grade sunflower seeds can be found at Sprout People. In case you have a Whole Foods nearby I found a small packet of black oil sunflower seeds in the seeds sprouting section.

Coconut coir can be found at Ace Hardware.

Earthworm castings can be found at Gardens Alive.

Trouble Starting Seeds? Avoid These 6 Super Common Mistakes

As Spring approaches for most of us, it's time to dive into the wonderful world of starting seeds. When you're a beginner gardener, starting seeds can seem like a daunting task. Maybe you've only purchased transplants up to this point in your gardening journey, and are only dipping your toes into starting seeds this season.

While the process isn't hard, there are certainly a lot of mistakes you can make if you're not paying attention. In this piece, I'm going to go over six of the mistakes I feel are most commonly made by beginner gardeners so you can have a healthy, thriving batch of seeds this Spring!

egg carton tray for seed starting
Photo by alikaj2582 via Adobe Stock

You're Not Giving Them Enough Light

In a young seedling's life, light is the number one resource they need. The seed itself will provide them with enough nutrition to grow and hopefully you're giving them enough water. Where most beginners go wrong is providing their delicate seedlings with too little light.

Your seedlings are starving for light in the beginning of their life, and simply placing them on a south-facing window often isn't enough to cut it. It's practically essential to supplement your natural light with an indoor grow light that you set on a timer for 14 hours on, 10 hours off per day. By doing this, you avoid causing legginess in your seedlings, which weakens the seedling overall and likely means it won't do well when transplanted into your garden.

You're Not Watering Correctly

Once you're sure that light isn't an issue, make sure you know how to properly water your seedlings. Before germination, the simplest way to water is with a mister, directly on the top of your seed starting trays. Watering cans tend to be a bit too aggressive of a stream of water, so avoid unless you buy one that has a broken-up water stream.

A more effective strategy, especially once your seedlings have germinated, is to bottom-water. With this method, you're using capillary action to draw water up through the soil to your plants' roots. All you need to do is add water to the bottom of the tray your seedling inserts are in, and let physics do the work!

The Temperature Isn't Right

Seeds aren't dead...they're dormant. And one of the major triggers that starts the germination process is the temperature of your soil. For most seedlings, this means a warmer temperature, because in nature this signals the end of winter and beginning of spring.

Most seeds begin germinating in a temperature range of 45 degrees F to 75 degrees F, though you should look up the specific temperature recommended for the seeds you're starting, or look at the back of the seed packet. If you're starting seeds in a cold area, a seedling heat mat is pretty much crucial. It'll boost the temperature of your soil to an optimal level, causing your seedlings to begin the germination process.

You Planted Too Deep

Seed sowing depth can be confusing and seem a bit arbitrary, but it's quite important for seed starting. some larger seeds like beans or peas have quite a bit of vigor in them and can handle being buried deeper into the soil. They're also larger and need to be planted deeper for full coverage.

Other seeds are quite small and fragile. If planted deeply, they won't have the strength to push their way to the surface to get access to the precious light they need to thrive. 

Still other seeds need access to light as a germination signal. With all of these variations, I can't give you a direct recommendation on seed depth except to say that you should adhere to the back of your seed packets as best as possible.

You're Using Non-Sterilized Equipment

Sterile soil and seed starting trays are vital. This is one of the most common mistakes I see, because gardeners are often excited to start seeds and don't go through the proper protocol to make sure no pests or diseases have made their way into the soil or equipment.

Remember, your seedlings are vulnerable in their young age. It's the same as a don't want to give them contaminated food or toys to play with! Buying sterilized seed starting mix instead of making your own is a good call as a beginner. To sterilize trays, wash them free of any debris and they spray them with food-grade hydrogen peroxide.

You Didn't Label Your Trays

My final 'mistake' is more of an organization failure. Assuming you've followed these tips, you should have nice and healthy seedlings. But if you didn't label your might not remember what you  planted! To avoid this, I recommend writing down the following for every different type of seed you start:

  • Plant 
  • Variety
  • Planting Date

By doing this, you won't need to rely on your memory when your seedlings are grown up and ready to get out into the garden.

I hope these tips help prevent some of the mistakes you make as you venture out into the garden this Spring!

Grow Vegetables in Raised Beds

Raised beds are an easy way to grow vegetables as the soil is loose from being aerated, turned and amended with organic matter which improves its texture and nutrients. The spacing in raised beds makes plants grow closer together which creates more shade and the soil loses less moisture and self-mulches. Raised beds are ready earlier in the spring for planting in colder zones. 

Raised Vegetable Garden Beds
Photo by Elenathewise via Adobe Stock

Kits to make raised beds can be purchased or you can easily make a wood frame to hold the soil, but it needs to be rot resistant because the wood is in constant contact with moist soil. Wood such as cedar and redwood are resistant to termites and decay. Douglas fir or pine can be used but might only last five years. The beds can extend above the ground from several inches to 12 inches. The beds can be any width and arranged in any design but need to be built so the middle of the beds can be easily accessed.

To make your own beds cut the wood lumber the size of the planned bed, drill 3 holes in the corner boards with a #30 bit and insert 4-inch weather proof dry wall screws. Brackets can be placed on the outside to make it sturdier.

Choose an area in your yard that has at least eight hours of sun. Dig the soil where the raised bed will be placed. Move the bed in line with the dug soil and line the bed with chicken wire if you have underground critters. Fill the bed with a combination of soil, compost, peat moss and fertilizer 8-32-16.

desiree's raised beds

If this is your first-time growing plants in a raised bed start with plants or seeds of tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, radishes and scallions for a fresh home-grown salad.

Harvest Garden Design Ideas

There are few greater pleasures than feeding friends, family and even your community from your own harvest. Laying the right groundwork can make light work of what might otherwise be a long, hard grind through seasons spent fighting the elements. Using time-honored traditions that harness nature’s habits can make your garden thrive. Here are a few harvest garden design ideas that will make your landscape both beautiful and fruitful.

greens garden
Photo by Stella de Smit on Unsplash

Plant a Food Forest

Since a forest thrives without tilling, irrigation, weeding, or fertilization, you can use this ancient gardening technique to help your garden succeed. Plant a seven-layered system: Canopy trees (Pecans, Walnuts, Chestnuts) at the northern end of your garden, flanked by fruit trees to the south. Next, come your shade-tolerant fruiting shrubs (gooseberries, guava, elderberry), followed by vines ( kiwi, grapes, passionfruit) which can climb fences, arbors, or trees that are tall enough not to get smothered. Put herbaceous plants (aromatic herbs, artichokes, asparagus) alongside groundcovers (strawberries, nasturtiums.) Many of the edible herbs will also repel destructive insects. Finally, the rhizosphere or root-crops (sweet-potato, yacon) add the finishing touches to your forest. Each successive layer is planted south of the taller layer before it.

Picking plants that are appropriate to your climate is key to your food forest’s success. Do your planting in the winter when trees and vines are available as bare-root, dormant plants. While this type of garden is built on perennial plants, annual vegetable crops can be planted around the edge of your food forest as well. This is a garden that will take years to fully mature but will give you much joy and bounty along the way.

Maximize Space with a Keyhole Garden

A keyhole garden is a round, raised bed approximately two feet high and seven feet in diameter. One side features an entry point that gives access to a round, caged-off center: the exact shape of an old-fashioned keyhole. Traditionally used to combat poor soils and searing temperatures in Africa, this garden is an excellent fit for states in the southwest, where similar conditions exist.  Additionally, keyhole gardens protect plants from being whacked by weed eaters or lawn mowers.  This is a type of wicking bed, but with one huge modification: you can compost as you grow in this garden.

The caged area is constructed first on a mound built up with sticks, rocks, or other material, so it forms a high point in the garden. The walls of the raised bed can be constructed with stacked stones, cinder blocks, vertical cedar trunks–your imagination is the limit. Once the bed is built, fill with soil and start planting.

Begin your caged compost with an appropriate ratio of leaves and grass clippings or green food waste, and continue to fill it and water it whenever you water your garden. This source of moisture and nutrients will continuously feed your plants, while the unique shape of the bed gives you access to all of its planting surfaces. A helpful tip: plant your root crops and large single-harvest veggies (i.e. cabbage) toward the center, and vining plants like squash or tomatoes around the edges for access.

Construct an Herb Spiral

A truly stocked herb garden can take up a lot of sunny space, which some gardeners don’t have. An herb spiral is a perfect way to get all the variety you crave in a small footprint. You can build a spiral-shaped bed with stones, blocks, or any material that lets you step it up from flat ground to a peak of about four feet high. If you want irrigation, a small sprayer at the very top and center is perfect–run the line before you fill the bed with soil.

Plant your herbs in the spiral according to mature plant size and water requirements. Your thirstiest, largest plants should be close to the base, while your smaller, more drought-tolerant can be planted higher up. As your herbs grow, water as needed and prune them to ensure they’re not crowding each other out. Done well, this handsome addition to the yard can give you savory, fresh herbs for years to come.

Join the countless other Americans who are making 2019 a record year in gardening and find your way to the harvest garden of your fantasies.

Starting Seedlings Indoors Now for Spring Gardening

Winter is the perfect time to get a head start on spring planting. Of course, you can purchase starts from garden centers, but seasoned gardeners know the really spectacular varieties simply cannot be found anywhere but in seed catalogs and must be grown indoors for some weeks. Starting your own seedlings offers more range and is less expensive, and watching your garden grow from seed is priceless. Here are a few tips to germinate and grow like a pro.


Keep Your Seeds Fresh

While market-gardeners might use entire seed packets in a season, most home-gardeners never come close. Store your leftover seed packets inside an airtight jar in the refrigerator, preferably with a cheesecloth-wrapped bit of powdered milk in the bottom to absorb moisture. Flower seeds usually stay viable for one to three years; vegetables can last two to four. Replace your seeds within those windows to ensure high germination rates.

Start Your Seeds at Just the Right Time

Remember, it’s best to start seedlings indoors to get a jump on plant development in regions with short growing periods, but no need to start too early. In fact, planting too early can backfire. Wait until six weeks before your last frost date to start most seeds. If you aren’t sure, use a planting calendar tool to help.

Use a Seed-Starting Mix

The best seedling mix is one you make yourself: combine equal parts peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite. If you need a smaller volume, pre-formed seed starters can be quite useful. Don’t re-use potting soil- especially if you’re planting herbs. It may be too coarse for your seedlings’ delicate roots, and it may be contaminated with fungal spores or other unwanted nasties.

Use Clean Containers

Any clean container with drainage is acceptable, but products designed specifically for starting seedlings are better suited to your needs. If you prefer not to use plastic, you can buy biodegradable pots that are planted directly in the garden without disrupting your seedlings’ delicate roots. Make sure your containers are set in a tray a few inches deep.

Get Temperature, Moisture, and Monitoring Right

Pre-moisten your mix evenly, so it’s moist but not wet before sowing seeds. Follow the instructions on seed packets to ensure you plant at the right depth, and use something like a chopstick to push seeds into the starting mix. Many people choose to cover their seed trays loosely with plastic or a cover to retain moisture but make sure there is still some air circulating.

When the soil is ten degrees warmer than the air temperature plants stand a better chance of germinating. You can buy special electric mats to place under your seedling trays or place seedling trays on the top of your refrigerator to take advantage of the appliance’s heat.

Check on your seed starts often, and as soon as they begin to sprout, remove the cover so that they can breathe. Water your trays so that the pots are watered from the bottom to establish strong root growth, and don’t overwater.

Potting up and Hardening Off

If you’ve started your seeds in seedling flats with small cells, you’ll want to transplant once the plants get their second set of leaves. If you began with multiple seeds in single biodegradable pots, you should select the strongest and pinch out the others. If you keep your seedlings in a window, make sure you rotate them every other day for even growth.

Once the risk of frost has passed and it’s almost time to transfer your seedlings to the garden, you must prepare your babies for the harsh realities of outdoor living. Water less often the week before moving them and don’t fertilize. A week or so before they’re scheduled to go in the ground, place them outside in a protected area out of direct sunlight. Keep their soil moist during this adjustment period, and transplant them into the garden early in the morning or on an overcast day to help minimize shock.

The magic of watching tiny seeds grow into a glorious garden can be rewarding. If you’re a first-time planter, this guide should give you the push you need to dig in.

Carrie Shaker is a landscape architect and mother who enjoys working on outdoor DIY projects with her children.

4 Mistakes To Avoid When Planning Your Garden

Most of us are still stuck in snow or freezing temperatures, but that doesn't mean we can't get our planning hats on for the garden this year. In fact, proper planning can drastically increase your success in the garden. And more success means more enthusiasm, more learning, and incredible harvests for you and your family.

However, there are a few extremely common mistakes I see many newer gardeners make when planning out their growing season. Avoid these and you'll save yourself a world of hurt once you actually start to grow.

small pot and scoop with loose soil
Photo by Neslihan Gunaydin on Unsplash

1. You Don't Pay Attention to Mother Nature

It might sound extreme, but paying attention to your unique growing environment is absolutely crucial to having a successful year in the garden. For example, look at how the sun passes over your property. Then, plan where you're going to plant individual plants based on that information.

I've seen gardeners plant a large vining plant in front of shorter leafy greens and completely block them from getting light, even though the garden is in full sun the whole day. Once those plants are established, there's not much you can do besides rip them out, admit your mistake, and try again. But by that point you've lost precious growing time.

2. You Plant Everything at the Same Time

Proper garden planning includes considering time. In fact, I'd say it's the most important element to consider, but also the most challenging for new gardeners.

It's difficult because you have to plan backwards most of the time. For instance, if you want to harvest carrots throughout their growing season, you have to plant them on roughly 21-day intervals. On top of that, you have to know when to start planting them in the first place

One of the biggest mistakes I see gardeners make is planting everything at the exact same time and then seeing where they chips fall. Don't get me wrong, you'll still get a bunch of delicious food, but you won't get as much as you would if you took an hour or two to map out when everything you're planting will come to harvest.

3. You Grow What You THINK You Should Grow, Not What You Actually Eat

This is a funny one to me, because I used to do this all of the time! I would look up lists of "good plants to grow" and then grow those, completely ignoring the fact that I didn't enjoy eating them!

If you know for a fact you hate radishes...don't grow radishes. Even though they're easy to grow and can slot into empty gaps in the garden.

4. You Don't Take Into Account Planting Density

Don't get me wrong — I'm a big fan of high-intensity planting. But it can be taken too far. Understanding how far apart to space your seeds in your beds is crucial if they're going to get the light, water, and nutrients they need to mature properly.

You can get away with a denser planting than most seed packets recommend, but don't go overboard. Try the Square Foot Gardening system for plant spacing if you need a tried-and-true system for squeezing the most yield out of small growing spaces.

Go Forth and Plan!

A proper plan is one of the best things you can do for your garden in the winter months. It's a bit tedious to do, but spend a few hours upfront and you'll have a thriving garden come spring and summer.

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