Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What's New at the Farm? Random thoughts on weeds, rats, and birds

I think for this week, I’ll toss some random thoughts out there; things that we all need to think about but nothing I can write a whole column on.

Weed Seed Movement:  Weed seed does not moves on its own, but rather we move it with our actions. Fifteen years ago here at the farm, we had a small plot of Galinsoga. Now we have it in every field on this farm and at some of the isolations fields. Galinsoga is a bad weed; if you don’t have it, don’t get it. If you do have it you know what a challenge it is to handle. Preventing weed seed movement is as simple as cleaning your tools and shoes between gardening sessions. Washing equipment between fields helps here on the farm; a lot of weed seed can hide in a small amount of soil

If you have a landscaping service rototill your garden make sure they wash their equipment prior to tilling your plot. There’s no need to bring your neighbors’ weed seed into your garden. If you have a weed issue in part of your garden, make sure it doesn’t get established in the other parts of your garden. Be vigilant about killing and removing any weeds going to seed; especially in the late summer /fall season. Many weeds grow well undisturbed in the fall months, after gardening interest has waned. Chickweed is a good example of this. Keep an eye on cover crops to make sure that weeds don’t grow in their understory. If you see weeds growing there, mow or otherwise kill off the crop and reseed. 

If you have domestic animals, you will have rats. Fact. Everyone who has domestic animals knows this and accepts it. There are other circumstances that ensure you’ll have them too. One is birdfeeders. Birdfeeders concentrate bird activity in one area of the yard, thereby attracting all kinds of unwanted critters, including rats. Birds are notoriously wasteful and throw seed everywhere. All this seed on the ground is a surefire way to attract rats. I’ve seen full-grown rats chasing squirrels away so they can feed on the smorgasbord of seed at a bird feeding station. Compost piles and greenhouses are also attractions for rats; food, shelter and warmth will give rats a good place to spend the winter.

Solution for rats? Well, it varies. Deny them a place that’s warm, a food source and a place to hide out and that will go a long way towards reducing their numbers. Have the compost pile away from buildings – out in the open where they’ll have to be exposed in order to search for food. Birds of prey will take their toll on them as they move about.  Foxes, weasels and pine martins will also eat them if given the opportunity.  The placement of bird feeders out in the open, or at least not in an area that will provide them lots of cover i.e. low growing bushes will help to discourage them from hanging around. I’ve seen owls watching the feeders at home and talking mice but not taking the songbirds from around the feeders. Of course the birds don’t hang around much when there’s an owl perched above them either.

I had rats in the garage last year. My garage is between the bird feeders and the compost pile and has the chicken houses on the north side of the yard. I dislike poisoning them but I dislike them even more. I resorted to poison to get rid of them and then placed drops of peppermint oil around the garage in several locations. Coincidence or not, I haven’t seen a rat in the garage this year.  And the garage smells good too.

Birds: I like birds; all kinds of them. Whether they are songbirds, birds of prey or ducks and geese I enjoy them all. The winter is a perfect time to do some maintenance of the birdhouses that adorn both Johnny’s farm and my place at home.  At the farm, we have approximately 30 birdhouses around the fields and woods. Most of these houses are occupied with swallows, but we do have a Bluebird pair down on the hill. At the house we have about 12 birdhouses around the yard and garden. I must admit I’m not as disciplined at home about the birdhouses as I am at Johnny’s but my heart is in the right place. I have designed a birdhouse that works well for swallows and can be taken down each year, repaired and stored for the winter before being put back out in the weather for new nests to be built in.

We have had over the years hundreds of successful nests here at the farm, mostly swallows. I like their aerial maneuvers and graceful flights. They are certainly busy feeding their young ones until they fledge. Fledging is the most dangerous time for the young ones, but it’s immensely rewarding watching them take off for the first time too. This time of year, I walk through the fields stopping at each birdhouse to clean and inspect it. I bring some tools and a spare house or two and make repairs and observations as to anything that needs fixing before the birds’ arrival in the spring. Spring comes earlier than you might think so it’s best to not put this maintenance off too late.

This is a good time to look around at birdhouses and perhaps build or buy a couple. Sometimes it’ll take a year or two to get the birds interested in a new house. Sometimes they’ll move in as soon as they come back.  There are a lot of craftsmen out there who make really nice houses, although the birds aren’t usually all that fussy. As long as they feel safe and secure they’ll probably nest in it. A good birdhouse should last 10 to 20 years if properly taken care of.

And my final thought for today:  Spring will be here sooner than we know it and we need to be ready!  Next week is March and winter is about done. I’ve ordered the compost, most of the plastic and row covers, and most all the crop growing aids that we’ll need. I’ve yet to order the cover crop seed. I’ll finalize the planting plan before I decide which cover crops to use this year.  The planting plan designates which crop will be planted where. Where crops go depends on many factors including fertility, soil conditions, rotations and previous crop information. Did a crop do well here or should I move that same crop to another field? Here at Johnny’s we have 10 different field locations and a total of 31 separate fields. Placing all our crops is kind of like a big crossword puzzle. There’s a lot of planning that goes on to make sure all crops perform as well as they can.

Until next week, I think I’ll go do some more planning.

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