Setting up your own drip irrigation system

A friend was over the other day touring the farm and noticed the maze of black tubing that comprises our drip irrigation valves at the orchard entrance.

"That looks complicated" he remarked.

"You know, it's not really as complicated as it looks", I chuckled, "Did you ever play with Legos as a kid?"

"Yea of course"

"Well, if you can put together a Lego set you can certainly put together a drip irrigation system"

"Do they make drip irrigation systems out of Legos?"

"If only..."

A row of figs on drip irrigation

A row of figs on drip irrigation

Why bother?

If you have a small garden or just a few raised beds you may be asking, why even bother? I'd almost tend to agree. If you're just maintaining a small area part of the fun of watering the garden every day may be in seeing how things are growing. Kat and I started out with just a simple raised bed on the side of our first home and part of the fun was coming home from work, watering the garden and seeing how much things grew.

But let's say you've moved on to a larger plot and watering during the hot summer months becomes more of a chore than a pleasure. Taking some time to setup a simple drip irrigation system will pay for itself time-wise in short order.

Why else? Drip irrigation can help reduce water-related foliar diseases by watering right at the roots. In addition, drip irrigation (versus irrigating overhead) applies the water right where the plant needs it: at the roots, so there's less waste.

Properly done and with just a little maintenance, a drip irrigation system can last you many seasons and save you oodles (yes, oodles!) of time.

Our irrigation valve manifold at the entrance to the orchard

Our irrigation valve manifold at the entrance to the orchard

Getting Started

When I first started setting up my own drip irrigation system, my first question was about getting the right parts. Thankfully, many sites sell starter kits for various types of installations: potted plants, garden beds, vegetable beds, greenhouses, and more. It takes the guess work out of an initial setup.

DripDepot.com starter kits

DripIrrigation.com starter kits

In addition, many online retailers, knowing that this can be tricky topic, have setup tutorials to help the first-time user get a grasp on the fundamentals. See a few links below for some great articles and tips to get started.

See DripIrrigation.com’s articles on drip irrigation http://www.dripirrigation.com/articles

Take a look at DripDepot.com’s education section: http://www.dripdepot.com/education

Starter kits along with tutorials were a great help in understanding all of the pieces that need to be in place for a system to work properly. With this knowledge in hand, I ordered my first drip system kit and then added other parts I thought I'd need based on the number and type of plants I was trying to irrigate. Did I get everything right? Nope. But the good thing is that irrigation parts are typically pretty inexpensive so you typically won't break the bank. Plus, it's good to have any extra unused parts around in case you expand your system in the future.

Irrigation at Threefold Farm

At our current Threefold Farm location, we're fortunate to be on a good well that supplies 3-4 GPM (gallons per minute) at the hose spigot. Not a huge flow by any means but sufficient to water a pretty large areas at a time with drip emitters. We've divided our system into several zones that come on at set times throughout the day. Since this well also provides water for our house, we have these turn on mostly during the night when we're not using water in the house.

Here's what our zones look like:

ZoneDurationEvery Day Start TimeMWF Start Time
Zone 1 (Main Vegetables15 mins9 AM, 4 PM
Zone 2 (Orchard Vegetables)20 mins9:30 PM, 4:30 PM
Zone 3 (Figs West #1)25 mins2:30 AM
Zone 4 (Figs West #2)25 mins3:00 AM
Zone 5 (Figs East)25 mins3:30 AM
Zone 6 (Orchard West)25 mins4:00 AM
Zone 7 (Orchard East)25 mins4:30 AM
Zone 8 (2014 New Plantings)25 mins5:00 AM
Zone 9 (Nursery Area)8 mins8 AM, 1 PM, 5 PM
Zone 10 (Berries)25 mins5:30 AM
Zone 11 (Japanese Maples)25 mins6:00 AM

We've used a variety of different types of drip emitters for different applications over the years. Some we've come to use through trial and error, others come about through seeing what different nurseries and orchard use and trying out the same here. It seems that every year we learn a little something new or come across a type of emitter we haven't tried before and decide to give it a go. Here's how we handle the various types of drip irrigation we have setup here.

For potted plants

For smaller potted plants (< 2 gallons) we rely on drip stakes and button drip emitters. The setup is simple and allows us to accommodate very small pots on up to 2 gallon pots. We do this by placing a 2 GPH pressure-compensating drip emitter on our 1/2" supply line, then split it either 2 ways or 4 ways. For the smaller pots we use the lines split 4 ways, for the larger pots we use the 2-way split lines and sometimes stick 2 emitters in one pot.

Closeup of one of our drip stakes caught in the act!

Closeup of one of our drip stakes caught in the act!

A 2GPH button emitter with a two-way splitter supplies 1GPH each to two drip stakes

A 2GPH button emitter with a two-way splitter supplies 1GPH each to two drip stakes

For larger potted plants we exclusively use product called Spot Spitter. These are very economical (less expensive than the drip stakes when you factor in the button emitter and splitter) and do an excellent job with larger pots: 2 gallons on up to 50 gallons. They could even be used on larger pots but I'm thinking you might want more than one spot-spitter per pot. Spot spitters are rated by the GPH that they output and the type of spray that they put out (narrow versus wide).

A spot spitter doing its thing

A spot spitter doing its thing

Both of these types of emitters have worked really well through multiple seasons and even sit out in our cold winter weather with no adverse effects, though they'd probably last longer if I stored them in a sheltered location for the winter.

For raised beds & vegetable beds

In our vegetable beds we've gone through a couple different types of drip emitters. Starting out we used soaker hoses. These are 1/2" hoses that "weep": water drips out along the entire length. These worked well when we had just a few beds, but became somewhat impractical for larger-scale watering. In addition, the hoses put out a lot of water, so it would have been impossible to water a larger number of beds at a time with this approach.

We’ve now switched to using ¼” dripline. This flexible tubing has drip emitters inserted at various spacing with various flows. We’ve found that for what we’re growing, the 6” spacing of 0.5 GPH drippers works well. If you’re exclusively growing larger crops, 12” or even 18” spacing may work well for you. We rotate crops in and out of our beds so we wanted a universal spacing, and 6” seems to work well.

Dripline (as well as drip tape) is also available in ½” diameters and would be good for long rows of crops. We prefer to use ¼” because it’s more flexible. Dripline is used in more permanent installations while drip tape is typically replaced every season.

One thing to note is the length of the ¼” dripline runs. With 6” spacing @ 0.5GPH our runs of dripline off of the main ½” line are limited to about 30’. Any more than 30’ and you’d begin to see a dropoff in drip output as the line simply can’t handle the water output. 30’ works well for our 4x12 beds and we can lay out the tubing quickly and easily to accommodate whatever is planted.

Quarter inch dripline along with a microsprinkler for seedlings. I don't highly recommend this particular microsprinkler since it seems to clog easily.

Quarter inch dripline along with a microsprinkler for seedlings. I don't highly recommend this particular microsprinkler since it seems to clog easily.

For orchard or fixed-distance plantings

In an orchard or other tree-row planting simplicity and cost are major factors. Runs of dripline can be in the hundreds of feet. Tree rows are typically kept mulched or left as bare ground to reduce competition and give the tree the advantage over groundcovers. If some dripline is hit by a tractor you want repair to be simple and cost-effective. Therefore I’d recommend using ½” dripline for watering. Depending on the length of run, available water pressure, tree spacing, and the needs of the particular tree you’re growing, drip emitter spacing ranges from 12” all the way up to 48”. We don’t employ any ½” dripline for tree crops here, but I’ve seen it used in commercial orchards for a variety of trees and bushes planted in long rows.

For mixed plantings of trees, shrubs, and other plants

A typical garden bed is likely to have a mix of flowers, trees, and shrubs. In our own orchard, the same zone might water some larger trees along with a few bushes laid out in rows.

For trees our current emitter of choice is the adjustable bubbler. When the tree is small the bubbler can be dialed way down to just a trickle. Once the tree is larger the bubbler can be opened up (if you’ve got the pressure!) to soak a larger area and account for the increased water needs of the tree.

In a mixed planting, try to plan out the run of your main irrigation line and account for the different types of plants beforehand. For instance, one of our irrigation runs consists of mostly trees but also a few blueberry bushes laid out in rows. For the trees I went with adjustable bubblers then branched off the main line to run ¼” dripline (6” spacing, 0.5GPH) to the blueberries. For a commercial orchard this type of mix and match (read: haphazard) approach may not be a good idea, but it works well in our small orchard.

A bubbler at the base of our trifoliate orange.

A bubbler at the base of our trifoliate orange.

Zoning

A controller for one of our automated zones. You could also insert a manual ball valve if you'd like to control watering manually.

A controller for one of our automated zones. You could also insert a manual ball valve if you'd like to control watering manually.

All of our watering would not be possible without the use of individual watering zones. We simply don't have enough water pressure to water everything at once. Zones are a way to split up the plants you water into groupings. See our zone spreadsheet above for an example of how we’ve split up ours. Have a lot of plants and not sure how to split up your zones? Do some simple math before laying out your irrigation setup to determine how much water you want to put out to each plant over the time that you irrigate.

Example: Our well produces about 4 GPM or 240 GPH.  Therefore in ideal conditions I can run 240, 1 GPH drip emitters off of a single watering zone. Or I could also run 120, 2 GPH emitters off of the same zone. Or approximately 240’ of ¼” dripline (assuming 6” spacing @ 0.5GPH). Adjustable bubblers throw a wrench into the mix but make some estimates assuming the bubblers will be halfway open (most give a range of output in their specs). The lower the output of the drip emitters you choose the more emitters you can have in a particular zone, but be aware that lower output emitters will cover a small amount of ground versus wetting a larger area with a higher output emitter.

Automation

Watering is one of the most critical factors in establishing new plantings. In order to make things easy on ourselves all of our watering is set to run automatically on a schedule. How is this done? Well, we currently have this setup through battery-powered hose-end timers. These timers are built to run on a user-defined schedule all growing-season long on a single 9V battery.

How do they work? Pretty well. Our timers typically last us 2 years since they sit exposed in the sun all summer and are exposed to storms and rainy weather. They’ve been reliable enough to keep our potted plants alive and thriving through a few seasons, though we have had them quit on us mid-season. They’re easy to program and flexible enough to accommodate a variety of watering schedules: 3x a day for the potted plants, 2x a day for the vegetables, a few times a week for the trees and bushes.

I’d recommend watering everything really well and pretty frequently the first year, then backing off in subsequent years as the plants become more and more established. Regular watering will help the plant to grow to producing size more quickly and reduce stress on the plant. Fruit will also tend to be larger. We start off with watering 3-4x a week then will back off to 2x a week once things are established.

A happy, healthy row of figs on drip irrigation. Notice the growth even after a very harsh winter!

A happy, healthy row of figs on drip irrigation. Notice the growth even after a very harsh winter!

Centralized control & remote triggering

In the future, we plan to ditch battery-operated timers for a centrally controlled system. There are irrigation controllers now that can be controlled over the internet and via mobile devices. It should be rather simple to convert our existing system to a centrally-controlled one in the future. Look for another article if we do!

Fertigation

All of our plants love the regular watering they receive via drip irrigation and the plants respond with tremendous growth. For our potted plants, this means that they also want a lot of nutrients or they start to yellow. We try as much as possible to incorporate necessary nutrients into the soil mix but sometimes it doesn’t keep up with growth. Enter fertigation (fertilizing + irrigation).

Fertigation allows you to fertilize your plants while you irrigate. By using water soluble fertilizer and a fertilizer injector, a small amount of fertilizer can be added to the water so that the plants are fed and watered at the same time. Currently we fertigate just our potted plants because it’s a controlled environment and the plants can’t seek out nutrients as easily as they might in the ground. Water soluble fertilizers are available with both organic and conventional options.

Do you have irrigation setup on your garden? Got any advice to share? Let us know in the comments!

 

Making your own potting mix

At Threefold Farm we're constantly repotting and potting up various plants, especially those that we sell. In years past we used a bagged potting soil like you'd get at your local big box store or garden center, but it got expensive, even when buying the larger bags. Plus, we found that the stuff we were buying just didn't hold up very well in pots through multiple seasons.

One of our figs thriving in its potting mix

One of our figs thriving in its potting mix

I had thought that mixing up your own potting soil would be tricky, but it turns out it's rather simple. Here were our requirements for a good mix:

  1. Cost - It has to cost less than what you'd get at the big box store for the same volume of mix, otherwise it's just not worth the hassle of mixing it up.
  2. Good Drainage - Potting mixes need to retain some water to be available to the plant, but not so much that the plant becomes water-logged.
  3. Longevity - We need a mix that will hold up through at least 2 seasons with minimal compaction. Most peat-based potting mixes tend to break down and compact after just one season. This works fine for most annuals but doesn't work so well for plants grown exclusively in pots.
  4. Nutrient-rich - In the ground, a plant's roots can seek out nutrients. Not so much in the controlled environment of a pot. What you put in a mix is all that's available to the plant (unless you fertigate or top-dress). We'd like those nutrients to be derived as much from compost and other natural sources as possible with less of a dependence on chemically derived fertilizers.
  5. Easily Made - The mix can't take a lot of time to make and the "ingredients" must be readily available locally.

After a good bit of research I stumbled across a mix recipe called "Al's 5-1-1". We've modified the recipe a little, but the spirit of it remains the same. The list of "ingredients" was readily available locally. We mix ours up in batches that end up supplying 40-50 gallons of mix for potting up plants. I've used this on our figs, pomegranates, and a few other fruiting plants and all respond really well to it. This mix probably wouldn't work quite as well for blueberries and other acid-loving plants but does see to be fine for our trifoliate orange (which I'm told likes the soil a little acidic). I'm going to guess that the resulting pH of the mix is between 6.5 and 7.

The ingredients, all lined up and ready to go!

The ingredients, all lined up and ready to go!

Batch Ingredients

1 bag - Pine Bark Mulch 3 cu ft (also called "pine bark fines", you really want the smaller pieces)

5 gallons - Peat Moss (I buy the big compressed bales of it for making multiple batches. It also comes in handy when prepping soil for planting blueberries)

5 gallons - Perlite (I prefer the coarser grade stuff without as much of the "dust" you find in the cheaper perlites)

5-10 gallons - Compost (we use 5 gallons of mushroom soil and 5 gallons of leaf mold compost per batch)

1-2 lbs of granular limestone (more could be used, figs love a bit more and it doesn't hurt them)

A few cups of time-release fertilizer - I suppose this could be skipped if you go a little heavier on the compost. We use a synthetic fertilizer currently but will be looking into possible organic options. Most time-release fertilizers will have instructions printed on the bag to let you know how much should be added to a mix.

Our potting mix after combining everything with a fork. Pen is there for comparison to see the size of the various components.

Our potting mix after combining everything with a fork. Pen is there for comparison to see the size of the various components.

Our mix after it's been potted up and watered in.

Our mix after it's been potted up and watered in.

Cost Breakdown

This is my best guess based off of what I pay locally. Your results may vary depending on the ingredients you buy in larger bags/bales versus smaller bags.

Pine Bark Fines - $6

Peat Moss - $1.50

Perlite - $1.50

Compost - Free - $1

Granular Limestone - $0.50

Fertilizer - $1

Total - $10.50 - 11.50

How does this compare to the big box store price? Based on a quick search, it looks like the 64 quart large bags of name brand potting mix go for $13-15 for 64 quarts (16 gallons). Assuming that this mix makes between 40-50 gallons, you're looking at about ~$40 for a comparable amount of mix, almost 4x the price.

Where do we get our stuff? Most everything can likely be found at your local feed store. We have a local Agway that carries most of the stuff or can order it in for us.

A cheap bucket from Lowes or Home Depot works for quickly measuring out 5 gallons. For the granular limestone and time-release fertilizer I usually just eyeball it. The ingredients are mixed in our garden cart with our ensilage fork (I call it our compost/manure fork). A shovel would work for mixing too but the fork really helps to move a lot of the mix at a time. I've heard of folks using a tarp to get things done or even a cement mixer (hey, it would save a workout!). It's a good idea to keep a hose around as you add the peat moss and perlite as they can sometimes be dusty. Plus, it's nice to have the mix a little damp when you're potting plants so the mix doesn't draw moisture from the plant.

That's it! I've sometimes pre-made a few batches of this for days when we do a lot of repotting. I've found that the nutrients in the pot supplied by the compost typically last a little over a full growing season for us, depending on the needs of the plant. After that we could either top-dress with fertilizer for the following season or repot the plant if it has outgrown its current pot.

Check below for some pictures of the individual components of the mix.

Pine bark fines (called Pine Bark Mulch by Agway)

Pine bark fines (called Pine Bark Mulch by Agway)

Bale of peat moss. You can most certainly get a smaller amount if only doing a single batch or two.

Bale of peat moss. You can most certainly get a smaller amount if only doing a single batch or two.

Perlite. I prefer a coarser grade versus the smaller stuff.

Perlite. I prefer a coarser grade versus the smaller stuff.

Granular limestone for extended release purposes

Granular limestone for extended release purposes

Generous amounts of leaf mold compost and mushroom soil. Lots of nutrients for the soil.

Generous amounts of leaf mold compost and mushroom soil. Lots of nutrients for the soil.

A hardy pomegranate thriving in the mix.

A hardy pomegranate thriving in the mix.

Fig Trees For Sale!

Notice: Sales have ended for 2014. Thanks for making our first year so successful! Check back in early 2015 for increased selection and some larger sized trees.

We have a number of fig trees for sale! All were hardy in-ground in south-central Pennsylvania this past winter with simple mulch protection. If you haven't had a fresh fig before, you're missing out! Figs trees are easy-care plants that don't require spraying and deer tend not to bother them (ours are planted outside of the fenced orchard).

Check out our Availability page to see the varieties we still have available then Contact Us to place an order.

Young fig trees

Young fig trees

Week in Pictures 6/8/2014

This week's post in memory of my grandmother, Phyliss "Grammy" Mengle, who passed away this past week. She loved pink and purple so we'll start off the post with some roses.

Pink climbing roses for Grammy

Pink climbing roses for Grammy

A peculiar spot for a nest among the blackberries

A peculiar spot for a nest among the blackberries

A new trellis for our brambles.

A new trellis for our brambles.

Big fig alley. Hopefully all of these will have fresh figs by the end of summer!

Big fig alley. Hopefully all of these will have fresh figs by the end of summer!

An Asian persimmon in bloom. Beautiful leaves, nice plant form, and beautiful fall color. Oh, and delicious fruit that doesn't need spraying. This is rapidly becoming one of my favorite trees in the orchard.

An Asian persimmon in bloom. Beautiful leaves, nice plant form, and beautiful fall color. Oh, and delicious fruit that doesn't need spraying. This is rapidly becoming one of my favorite trees in the orchard.

Goumi berries ripening. Carefree plant, early ripening, nitrogen fixer. Berries are decent but have a single large pit inside.

Goumi berries ripening. Carefree plant, early ripening, nitrogen fixer. Berries are decent but have a single large pit inside.

Blueberries sizing up for harvest later this month. Yum!

Blueberries sizing up for harvest later this month. Yum!

Lingonberry plant growing between our blueberries. This would seem to be about the southern extent of its range.

Lingonberry plant growing between our blueberries. This would seem to be about the southern extent of its range.

Male che tree planted right next to its female companion for, you know, obvious reasons.

Male che tree planted right next to its female companion for, you know, obvious reasons.

The beginnings of a European pear espalier.

The beginnings of a European pear espalier.

Flying dragon citrus (poncirus trifoliata) thriving after a very very bitterly cold winter.

Flying dragon citrus (poncirus trifoliata) thriving after a very very bitterly cold winter.

A post would be remiss without a shot of our vegetable garden. Everything is coming on nicely and we'll soon have some summer-type vegetables available!

A post would be remiss without a shot of our vegetable garden. Everything is coming on nicely and we'll soon have some summer-type vegetables available!

Late-planted tomatoes with drip tubing installed. Most are cherries so they should all bear pretty quickly!

Late-planted tomatoes with drip tubing installed. Most are cherries so they should all bear pretty quickly!

Farm Visits - Treesearch Farms

At Threefold Farm, we've drawn a lot of our inspiration and ideas from visiting local farms as well as those we encounter on trips.  We'll make it a habit to blog about farms as we visit to share what we've learned.

A few weeks ago while visiting family down in Houston, Texas, I stopped by Treesearch Farms. Treesearch is a wholesale nursery with some fantastic display gardens and trial orchards. They sell all manner of plants but are known for having a fantastic and diverse selection of fruiting trees and bushes. I make it a habit to stop by any time I'm in town.

Heidi in one of her gardens

Heidi in one of her gardens

The owner of Treesearch, Heidi Sheesley, is a family friend and is well known in the Houston garden community for her work in trialing plants in the area. Sub-tropical Houston offers a unique climate: high humidity, long hot summers, low chill hours, and usually a couple frosts or freezes each winter.  

Happiness waits on the other side of these gates!

Happiness waits on the other side of these gates!

Heidi's gardens include some plants more typically associated with areas north of Houston: low-chill apples and peaches, raspberries, southern highbush blueberries, and some trial low-chill sweet cherries. She also stretches her zone by growing some fruits more associated with tropical areas (areas with minimal frosts and freezes): avocados, satsumas (one of the most hardy citrus), grapefruits, oranges, meyer lemons, limequats, and many more I'm failing to remember.  Plants that thrive in the heat and humidity as well as tolerate some freezes do well in the Houston area: figs, pomegranates, blackberries, jujubes, low-chill peaches, Asian persimmon, paw paw, plums.

An entrance to one of the display gardens

An entrance to one of the display gardens

No Texas garden is complete without bluebonnets

No Texas garden is complete without bluebonnets

more_flowers.jpg

What did I take away from the Treesearch visit to apply here at Threefold?

  • Mulch, mulch, mulch - All beds and plantings are nicely and heavily mulched. Because there are so many planting beds, it would be seemingly cost-prohibitive to truck in loads and loads of mulch.  To remedy this, Treesearch uses leaves and pine straw to mulch their beds.  It makes an attractive natural mulch and solves the problem of what to do with all of those extra leaves in the fall. Once the leaves break down, they add nutrients back into the soil to help build it up.
  • Mixed plantings - In many of their display gardens, Treesearch has mixed flowering plants in with fruiting plants.  This makes for attractive, food-producing gardens while working to attract beneficial insects and pollinators.  While this may not work in a production orchard setting, it works well in plantings of just a few fruit trees at a time.
  • Drip Irrigation - Many of the potted plants for sale as well as many of the plantings are irrigated with drip irrigation.  We follow this practice at Threefold and want to make sure it's part of any future planting.  It saves so much time versus dragging a watering hose around and the regular, consistent watering helps the plants to grow tremendously. Plus, irrigating at the ground-level, right at the roots, saves water (versus spraying water around) and helps to cut down on disease pressure due to wet foliage.

It's surprising as well to see some of the plants that overlap between us (planting zone 6b/7a) and those of Treesearch (zone 9b many years, 8b some years).  We both grow Asian persimmons, Asian pears, paw paw, blackberries, jujubes, blueberries, peaches, plums, as well as figs and pomegranates (with some protection here). It's neat to see these plants surviving and thriving in some very different climates.

If you're ever in Houston, stop by Treesearch Farms and have a look around. Just make sure you have several hours to spare.  If you're like me, you could easily spend most of the day here.

So many beautiful flowers

So many beautiful flowers

Good lookin' citrus trees in raised beds

Good lookin' citrus trees in raised beds

Citrus in bloom. I'm not sure anything smells better.

Citrus in bloom. I'm not sure anything smells better.

Thornless blackberries in bloom

Thornless blackberries in bloom

Trifoliate orange (poncirus trifoliata), also called wild orange. Great rootstock for citrus, horrible for eating (don't even try). Also known for awful thorns. We grow a variety of this called "flying dragon" in our orchard for its ornamental value.

Trifoliate orange (poncirus trifoliata), also called wild orange. Great rootstock for citrus, horrible for eating (don't even try). Also known for awful thorns. We grow a variety of this called "flying dragon" in our orchard for its ornamental value.

Pomegranate blossoms, just beautiful. Even if mine never fruit I hope I get to enjoy the blossoms.

Pomegranate blossoms, just beautiful. Even if mine never fruit I hope I get to enjoy the blossoms.

Asian persimmon blossom. Beautiful trees, great fall color and tasty fruit. Plus, it's relatively pest-free.

Asian persimmon blossom. Beautiful trees, great fall color and tasty fruit. Plus, it's relatively pest-free.

So what’s it like to milk a goat??

There were so many analogies that popped into my head as I considered this question. My experience thus far is that milking a goat is like trying to collect an egg from a chicken while it’s flying. At least that’s what day one and two were like. I am now a one week old goat milker, therefore a seasoned professional. Let me share my week with you.

Last Friday night, we separated Bramble from her babies. I was sure to close all the windows for fear of the neighbors calling animal control on us. In the morning, I took Bramble out, put her on her milk stand, secured her head in the stanchion (aka head holder), and put food in her bucket. I then took baby wipes and thoroughly wiped her teats and my hands. I then placed my four cup, heavy Pyrex bowl under her and began to pull down on her teats.

Now Bramble hasn't been milked in probably four months because two months before she had her babies, her milk dried up so her body could prepare for birth. The babies were born two months ago and they have been exclusively nursing since then. Now let me tell you, I think I have the manners of a saint when I milk her compared to her babies, who go to town mercilessly on her and make me wince in pain as I reflect on my own breastfeeding days. Apparently Bramble is not used to my delicate manner.

Our first couple of days were a dance. She would dance, I would attempt to milk. She would put her foot in the bowl, I would curse and throw it out - the end. After two days of this dance and discouragement, I called her former owners. It turns out I was doing almost everything right, phew! What I needed to do better was hold her down. I didn't read anything about that when preparing to own my own dairy animal. I missed the, “and then you shove your goat against the wall with all of your weight, use one hand to block hooves and the other to milk” part.

Learning this new technique reinvigorated me this morning, it gave me new hope. The whole time I thought I wasn't being fast enough, so she’s getting mad and dancing. No, she was just abusing me! Well, with my renewed patience, I took my sweet time and got two cups of milk! She did her dance, I sang to her, we did the back and forth, and I WON :). You would be surprised at the beautiful songs I have composed to try to calm her, “You are my Milk Goat, My Only Milk Goat” and “This Little Goat of Mine.” I am truly a spectacle to behold.

Soon, her babies will not nurse anymore, they will be weaned. Then I will get to have her milk in the morning and at night, approximately four cups a day. This is just enough to keep up with our 2-3 gallon milk consumption in the house. I do hope to make cheese and other wonderful things with the milk too, but for now, I will settle for milk without hooves in it. The end.

The Farm Stand Opens on Saturday!

Starting this Saturday, we are open for business! As we venture into selling to the public, we will have a farm stand at the entrance of our property where our current harvest is available for purchase. We are located at 123 Ridge Hill Rd, Mechanicsburg, PA 17050.

Our current hours are Mondays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays from 8-5. In the near future, we will have a grand opening to the public where you can visit the rest of the farm, see where your food is grown, and meet the goats and chickens (and us too:)).

Thank you for supporting us in this journey. We value any feedback that would make selling to you easier. If you would like first pick at our produce, you may order ahead online or call in your order and we will have it bagged and ready for pickup.

Current Availability:

  • Mixed Lettuces (8oz) $4
  • Spinach (8oz) $4
  • Kale (8oz) $5
  • Herbs- garlic chives, sage, or mint (1oz) $1

Week in Pictures 4/26/14

The benefit of a long cool spring - flowers stay beautiful for a long long time

The benefit of a long cool spring - flowers stay beautiful for a long long time

One of our old apple trees in full bloom

One of our old apple trees in full bloom

Pear tree in bloom

Pear tree in bloom

They're here! The goats arrived on Saturday.  They're so very cute and pretty cuddly too.

They're here! The goats arrived on Saturday.  They're so very cute and pretty cuddly too.

Spent most of the week putting up the fence.  Learned some lessons in bracing corners.  Still to do: t-posts for added security.

Spent most of the week putting up the fence.  Learned some lessons in bracing corners.  Still to do: t-posts for added security.

Meet the mama: Bramble

Meet the mama: Bramble

Kale is coming along nicely.  Should be ready to pick and sell in a week or two.

Kale is coming along nicely.  Should be ready to pick and sell in a week or two.

And onions coming along nicely too!

And onions coming along nicely too!

The girls admiring the fine fence hanging by the Clymer boys.

The girls admiring the fine fence hanging by the Clymer boys.

We must have a dozen of these in the yard.  Time for rabbit pie for dinner?

We must have a dozen of these in the yard.  Time for rabbit pie for dinner?

Simple Fig Propagation

It’s true, I have a bit of an obsession with fig trees.  I think it has to do with the challenge of growing figs up here (zone 6b this year, 7a most years).  Plus, if you haven’t tried one, a fresh fig is hard to beat.  What’s great is that figs are easy to propagate from cuttings!

As I write this there are approximately 150 fig trees at various stages of rooting and growing in my basement (hey, what else am I going to do in the winter?).  For several years now I’ve been looking for a cutting rooting method that gives the most bang for the buck.  Go ahead and google ‘fig propagation’ and you’ll find a variety of techniques.  

Some of these have you sterilizing your cuttings, setting them in a plastic baggie with a moist paper towel, in a container with damp sphagnum moss, or in a water bottle.  I’ve experimented to some degree with most of these before and found them somewhat wanting.  Many seemed like a whole lot of work for a not-so-great success rate.  By all means, find a method that works well for you on a consistent basis.  I’ve been searching for a method that satisfies the following requirements and I think I've found it.

Method Requirements

  • High success rate (80+%)
  • No pre-washing, mold control, shuffling, potting up, root formation monitoring, or otherwise babying the cuttings
  • Use of readily available inexpensive supplies (potting mix and containers, shop lights for growing)
  • Must work in my basement (65F, ~35% humidity in the winter)

Supplies

  • 1/2 to 1 gallon pots
  • Lightweight potting or rooting mix
  • 1" Parafilm

I use 4x4x9 Stuewe Treepots for the pots, straight Pro Mix BX for the potting mix, and the 1" parafilm available on eBay.

Rooting Method

1. Take cuttings in the late fall during dormancy before the low temps dip into the teens

  • In south-central PA, this is done in late fall (typically late November through early December)
  • I’m told fall is the best, as the sap flow is into the roots at this point and is preferable to taking cuttings in the Spring when sap is flowing upward.
  • Cuttings from this year’s growth seems to work well (wider than pencil width up to probably 1” in width). This year’s growth is the most susceptible to dying in the winter anyways, so I don’t feel bad cutting it off. As long as the base of the tree survives in the winter, the tree seems to bounce back the next year.
  • Cut a whole branch and worry about cutting it into pieces later.

2. Cut the cuttings into pieces to fit your pot

  • I use 4x4x9” treepots as I can fit the most under growlights and it offers a lot of soil surface (height) for roots to shoot out.
  • Cut about a quarter to a half inch above & below the top and bottom buds (respectively) to help keep the buds from drying out)
  • Cutting length should allow 1-2 buds above the soil surface, but it’s okay if you have more (some cuttings have closely spaced buds)

3. Fill the pots with a loose potting mix that’s labeled for cuttings

  • I use Pro Mix BX.  It’s readily available here, fairly inexpensive, didn't contain fungus gnats like I've seen with other mixes, and seems to work well. You can add a little coarse perlite if you feel it’s too “heavy”.  I haven’t seen much of a difference in success rate with just straight Pro Mix but adding perlite may help with overwatering issues.

4. Wrap what will be the exposed end of the cutting (the part sticking out of the soil) in parafilm down to ~1” below the soil level

  • Parafilm prevents the buds and wood from drying out prematurely.  Since the parafilm breaths mold never forms.  The stuck cuttings aren’t placed in any sort of humidity dome.
  • Parafilm stretches really well, make sure to stretch it well over the exposed buds.  The pressure of the swelling and opening bud will break through the parafilm as long as it’s stretched well.
  • Parafilm is the only “odd” supply needed here.  I use the 1” width and find cheap rolls on eBay. 1 roll should do 100+ cuttings as you’re only covering the tips.
  • Remove the parafilm later in the year while potting up when the new tree has outgrown its pot.

5. Stick the cuttings in the soil and thoroughly wet the soil under water runs out of the bottom.

  • Rewater when the top inch of the soil is dry (probably in a few weeks, depending on the humidity of the rooting place)
  • Cuttings can be stored in the dark until the buds start to swell and open.  At that point I introduce them to the grow lights (cheap 4’ fluorescent shop lights).  There shouldn’t be any drawback to placing them immediately under lights (other than the cost of running the lights)

6. Water as needed, and only as needed.

  • Water when the top inch of the soil is dry.  Overwatering can kill an otherwise good cutting by causing it to rot before it roots
  • Remember that cuttings starting out don’t need much water.  You're just trying to maintain high humidity in the mix to force the cutting to push out roots.
  • Don’t fret if a newly pushing out cutting loses a leaf or two.  I’ve seen them recover.
  • Once a cutting is growing vigorously (has put on and kept 4-5 leaves) it’s far less sensitive to overwatering so feel free to water it well.

That’s it!  Seems like a lot, but there’s no babying, no monitoring (besides for water), no mold issues, no supplies beyond potting mix, pots, and parafilm.

What are the downsides?  

I’ve only found one: you can’t monitor root development.  I think this is likely a really good thing, as formation of roots (or lack thereof) probably causes premature action to the detriment of the cutting.  

What’s my “take” rate?  

As of approximately 6 months into the cutting process, my success rate is 142 rooted out of 152 total cuttings, or about 93%.  Check out our Availability page to see what's available for purchase from the rooted cuttings this year.

At least half a dozen cuttings were pegged for being dead but ended up surviving.  They originally pushed out a few leaves that withered and fell off.  In many cases these cuttings shot up growth from below the soil level a month or so later after I set them in the "probably dead" pile.

Pictures

Pictures are worth a thousand words, so check out some of the photos below to see growth progress and some shots of the parafilm wrapping.

Parafilm-wrapped cuttings just starting to push out a little

Parafilm-wrapped cuttings just starting to push out a little

Cuttings pushing out their first set of leaves.  Notice how the buds just push through the parafilm.

Cuttings pushing out their first set of leaves.  Notice how the buds just push through the parafilm.

The cuttings a few weeks later.  I use simple shop lights for lighting as they seem to be the most cost-effective.  Fixtures at the big box stores can be found for around $10 and the bulbs are inexpensive as well.

The cuttings a few weeks later.  I use simple shop lights for lighting as they seem to be the most cost-effective.  Fixtures at the big box stores can be found for around $10 and the bulbs are inexpensive as well.

New healthy fig trees 4-5 months in.  Most cuttings were started in December and January.

New healthy fig trees 4-5 months in.  Most cuttings were started in December and January.



A Farewell to Flannel

Your colorful checked stripes and manly plaids
made dreary winter days seem half as bad
And tell me what woman could deny
a kiss to a flannel-wearin’ guy?

But as April closes and on into May
I’m afraid you’ll soon be packed away
 ‘Til Autumn’s chill knocks at our door
I will not see you anymore

But hark! What is that I see?
A late winter day (or two...even three)
So flannel, let’s enjoy another day
and leave summer’s t-shirts tucked away

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A Farm in Search of Land

Threefold Farm is on a search for land.  This year we’ll continue to work our existing 6 acre plot to get the most we can out of it and learn as we go.  Next year we hope to expand by securing an additional piece of ground.

What are we looking for?

God willing, we’re looking to purchase 15+ acres of farmland (or an existing farm) in the Mechanicsburg area to begin planting a u-pick orchard, a small nursery with greenhouses, and have some space left over for a farm stand, chickens, and outbuildings. Our vision is to serve the community through having an accessible, visible place where folks can come to pick good fruit, learn, and take away some plants to grow in their backyards.

How can you help?

That’s where we need you! (yes, you reading this) Do you know of someone with a farm in the Mechanicsburg area who would like to see the land continue to be farmed? If so, we’d love to hear from you!  Use our Contact page or send us a message on our Facebook page.

Apprenticeship @ McCleaf's Orchard

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When Kat and I were first considering getting into farming, we faced a major decision about our initial direction.  Do we find some land and jump right in?  Or do we take some time to learn before jumping in?  The former option was attractive at first as we were itching to get started, but I wasn't so sure and Kat didn't have any peace about jumping right in.  After consideration and prayer, we decided that the best course would be for me to start an apprenticeship.

Providence intervened about a month and a half ago when I was put in contact with a local farmer and orchardist who, I found out, was considering hiring extra help for the year. I mentioned that I wanted to learn and could work part-time in order to allow some time to practice what I was learning at home. Win-win. It's amazing how God works and guides us and gives us His grace as we attempt to step out in faith.

For the last four weeks I've been working at McCleaf's Orchard learning a little bit of everything: pruning hardy kiwis, blueberries, apples (semi-dwarf and high density), pounding in posts, working in the greenhouse, fixing up irrigation, and even going to market.  I'm humbled by the amount there is to learn but excited to gain experience every day.

I'll continue to work as an apprentice at least until the end of the growing season and go from there.  In the meantime we'll continue to work to get our property as productive as possible in addition to looking for a larger piece of land from which to run a u-pick operation.  Check out some of the pictures from McCleaf's farm below and stay tuned for more in the coming weeks as the trees start to bloom!

Apples after pruning

Apples after pruning

Kiwis before pruning.  A mess!

Kiwis before pruning.  A mess!

Kiwis after pruning, much better.

Kiwis after pruning, much better.

Arugula growing in one of the greenhouses

Arugula growing in one of the greenhouses

The old barn on the property

The old barn on the property


Goats? Totes!

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OK, I am not quite current with teen lingo, but YES we are totally getting some goats. Our reasoning for this is threefold, hah! One, we buy 2-3 gallons of milk a week for our growing family. Two, having children has made us more conscientious of what food we are putting into their and our bodies. It is our belief that food in its most natural state is best, and what easier way to control that than in your own backyard! Three, goats are the comic relief of farms and they are so stinkin’ precious. This last reason is not integral to our farm objectives.

Originally I had thought a cow would be awesome, but I did not think I could keep up with all of the milk from a cow. I then thought about goats, but I was afraid that the taste of goat milk would be too different from cow milk and I didn't know if I could make the switch. So this began our quest. We went to three different farms, saw three different breeds of goats, and tasted all of their milk. Before picking the farms, I researched goat breeds for their milk production and taste.

The first farm we visited was a commercial goat dairy. In Pennsylvania, we are blessed to have the government’s approval to buy and sell raw milk. Raw milk is, as stated by The Campaign for Real Milk, “milk that comes from pastured cows, that contains all the fat and that has not been processed in any way—it is raw and unhomogenized.” This definition applies to goats as well. We bought milk from this farm and learned quite a bit about goats. Their goats were Alpine, which stand fairly tall, about hip to chest height. This size did not bother me, as we had larger goats at my family’s farm as a child, and they were similarly sized. This did concern Tim a little, as our kids are just about knee to hip high right now. The milk from the Alpine goats was good, but to me, it tasted a little goaty, like you had a slight goat cheese aftertaste in your mouth. The funny thing is, Tim could not taste that one bit, nor could our son, but my daughter was also not wild about it.. so maybe male and female taste buds are different?

The second farm we visited had LaMancha and Alpine goats. The farms we have been to have been amazing. Goat farmers are so welcoming and patient and will answer hours of questions! This particular farm even let me milk three of their goats. This was my first milking experience. It wasn't long before I had it down! And I cannot believe I did this, but I drank fresh milk, just milked from the goat! The taste was very good, but once again, we were dealing with larger goats. (I will make a future post on the fine art of goat milking)

The third farm we visited had Nigerian dwarf goats. Oh. My. Gosh. These are the cutest things you've ever seen in your life. They stand about knee high and have the spunkiest little personalities. Nigerian dwarf goats also have a 8-10% butterfat content, which is one of the highest amongst goat milk. We tasted the milk and it was sweet! We also had some cheese and it was very good. So the milk taste combined with the cute factor had us sold!

At the beginning of May, we welcome our girls.

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Spring Arrives

Seeding beets

Seeding beets

After a long and deeply cold winter, we finally see spring on the horizon.  The ground has thawed, the chickens picked up production, and my Texan of a wife has worn a t-shirt outside.  It must be Spring.

Today marked the first bloom of one of our crocuses, almost a full month later than it bloomed last year.  Things seem a little slow to wake up this year, but it's happening: the daffodils poke through the leaves and mulch in search of light, our silver maple has already bloomed, and the bluebirds are searching out their spring homes.

The start of spring here at Threefold Farm meant today was spent getting the garden in order and sowing the early crops: kale, lettuce, onions (sets), carrots, beets, and maybe some potatoes later this week.  To give everything an extra boost, we've transformed several of our raised beds into little cold frames.  These cold frames helped us overwinter some delicious spinach (it survived -5F!) that's beginning to grow again after a long hiatus. It will help us speed up germination and growth of the seeds we've just planted.  Even these small cold frames will add a few weeks to the beginning and end of our growing season.

Do you use raised beds or cold frames? Got any tips to share? Let us know in the comments!

New cold frames without their covers 

New cold frames without their covers 

The completed coldframe, ready to go over a bed

The completed coldframe, ready to go over a bed

Meet the Girls

As a child, I grew up going to my grandparent’s farm every weekend and summer. While my grandfather was no longer farming, we still enjoyed every inch of dirt and water at that place. We caught turtles, crawfish, lizards, frogs, fish, you name it. Anything that could be caught, was - including armadillos caught by hand (we lived in Texas) and a litter of skunks (not caught by hand). This could be the reason my parents decided to let us keep some domestic farm animals, as I’m sure an infection of rabies was in our near future. This was when I was introduced to chickens.

After following many homesteading blogs, I have heard that chickens are the gateway drug to the farming lifestyle. Having had chickens as a child, and now having them as an adult, I have to say, we are hooked. If you can get past the neediness of chicks, you reap an awesome reward from your grown hens. With all of this, let me introduce you to the ladies.

Because my family and I have a love of music, we decided to name our girls after popular songs about women. Seeing them keeps a song on my lips frequently, which helps pass the time doing farm chores.

  • Black Betty & Billie Jean - Barred Rocks
  • Peggy Sue & Susie Q - Buff Orpingtons
  • Proud Mary & Ruby Tuesday - Rhode Island Reds
  • Sweet Caroline - Silver Laced Wyandotte

We got eight chicks, two each from four different breeds. One unfortunately turned out to be a rooster, so now we have seven. We chose many different breeds to determine which we like best as far as laying frequency, egg size, and personality (which is more about aggression than winning a popularity contest). We have followed the same process with ten new chicks that we are raising right now. More on raising baby chicks in another post.

So these are the girls! We get between 4-6 eggs a day from them. Some lay every day and some lay every other. We will be conducting laying tests to make sure everyone is laying. Unfortunately, on a farm, if you’re not putting food on the table in one way, you will be in another - no free loaders around here!

From left to right: Silver Laced Wyandotte, Buff Orpington, Rhode Island Red, Barred Rock

From left to right: Silver Laced Wyandotte, Buff Orpington, Rhode Island Red, Barred Rock

Feed us!!!

Feed us!!!


Why 'Threefold Farm'?

Since we first posted about our farm, we’ve had several people politely ask: “So uh….why the name?”  

“‘Cuz it sounds cool” wasn’t quite cutting it anymore, so I’m glad you asked!

Three is a number of meaning to us:

  • We’ve lived in three different states since we’ve been married: New York, Texas, and now Pennsylvania
  • Consequently, we currently live in the third house we’ve owned
  • We serve a triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  • Our house has three bedrooms?
  • ...and I’m sure I could think of more but I won’t belabor the point

Threefold Farm comes from our three ultimate desires and purposes for the farm’s existence.  Katherine and I are Christians, and ultimately, we hope this farm tells a story about Jesus and the gracious God we serve. Therefore our goals are threefold (aha! there’s the name):

Grow Deeply

We care about the food we grow, harvest, and feed to our families. Therefore we aim to produce our food as naturally as possible, with few (if any) synthetic pesticides and fungicides, as well as techniques that build the soil to promote healthy plants and therefore a healthy harvest!

Serve Joyfully

We want to serve the community in which we’re planted initially as a u-pick orchard and expand from there. Our hope is to run Threefold as an eventual non-profit (thus the .org) with a portion of the harvest given to local food banks and missions. We have some thoughts brewing there, so stay tuned!

Teach with Humility

We hope to take what we learn, as we learn it, and teach it back to the community. We’d love to see every back yard in our community shift from a mostly “grass farm” status to growing their own fruits and veggies. We realize our lack of knowledge and how much we still need to learn. Look for blog entries detailing our steps (and missteps) along the way.

Our goals (like us) are still a work in progress, so check back here to see how they shape up.