Posts tagged birds

Birdy it’s cold outside

In other news, the hyper-accurate weather folks at [insert your local mid-Atlantic/northeast news channel] had once again called for more snow, resulting in a state of complete panic and chaos in the area.  Having forgotten what grass looks like, let alone a blue sky, it might be easy to lament the situation and complain loudly to whoever is unfortunate to be within earshot.  Or perhaps you were busy stocking up on milk, eggs and toilet paper, since you either don’t carry more than 2 days worth at any given time, or your inventory of said items suddenly flies south at the mere mention of snow, much as all of us should seriously consider.  Whatever your first-world-problem predicaments were, stop for a moment to think about the birds.

Yes, birds.   …seriously.

I know there are cold and hungry people too, and I will try to help them all too, but I don’t have enough suet and corn meal.  And I hope they’re not eating suet and corn meal, at least unless it’s in the form of grits and biscuits and gravy, more on that later. So, yes, seriously, hungry birds.  With all the snow we’ve been getting and the ground being covered up, there’s slim pickens for the birds.  Now, if you’re anything like me and like bulk warehouse clubs and storing food, you may occasionally run into the problem of too much food and fast-approaching expiration dates.  I absolutely hate wasting food.  Period.  I was a wasteful little kid and I was picky as hell, but lo and behold, when I started working for a living and buying my own food I became an overnight frugalist.  So while I manage to go through my pantry/frig and eat most of what is about to expire, sometimes there’s too much. Like a 50lb bag of steel cut oats.

wpid-wp-1425901351049.jpegI love buying in bulk, and I love Amish/Mormon country stores, because they love bulk too.  That bag was only $25, so it was a great buy. So as I was saying, things sometimes expire.  However, don’t throw them away, many pantry items can be used to help feed your local birds.  I have an assortment of cardinals (my favorite), blue jays, finches, doves, and a few woodpeckers, and they can go through a 50lb bag of bird seed in about 3 days.  Bird seed is expensive, but homemade suet can be free(ish).  I consider something that I was about to throw away to be more or less free.  It’s not perfect logic, but it’s good-enough logic.






Another free item laying around my kitchen: bacon grease.  Oh yes, the good stuff.  Left over bacon drippings that I store in a tin and keep in the frig for Southern cooking.

wpid-wp-1425901365712.jpegThere’s 100 ways to cook Southern food, but 90 of them are butter and the other 10 is bacon grease.   I keep the bacon grease because no self-respecting biscuits and gravy eater would use instant mixes.  I also keep it because I learned my lesson about pouring that stuff down the drain.  So, occasionally, I build up quite a stockpile of it (I buy bacon in bulk too, you know).

So with many of these food items sitting around, you may have put two and two together, or already know where I’m going with this, but it all can be combined to make your own homemade suet cakes.  Bacon grease is salty, but so long as the birds have a supply of clean fresh water nearby, they should be fine.  A heated bird bath is even better.  Set up a suet feeder near your kitchen window and you’ll have a great reminder that there is still life outside and spring will be around soon enough.  Just make sure you use the suet up now, bacon grease isn’t pretty when the temperature starts rising.  I’ll experiment with beef tallow later on, so I’ll share my experiences with that when I do.  First I have to find a butcher or grocery store willing to give me the fat cuttings, or at least sell them to me for a reasonable price.


wpid-wp-1425901357869.jpegIf you’ve ever bought a suet cake, keep the plastic container that it came in, since that makes a great mold for making new suet cakes at home.  I have a simple recipe below.  It can work with quick oats too, since honestly the only thing quick oats are good for is feeding to horses and birds.


But first, here are some foods that are great for birds:
-Sunflower seeds
-Corn meal
-Bread crumbs (I don’t like the heel of the bread loafs, but rather than throw them away, I freeze them and when I have enough for a batch, I put them in the food processor to make my own bread crumbs.  They’re great for mixing with flour and making chicken tenders or fried chicken.)
-Old sugar cookies (use sparingly, too much sugar is bad for birds)
-Peanut butter

Now honey can be really easy, since everyone has experienced the crystalized honey at the bottom of their jars.  I’ve tried heating them in warm water baths or scooping it out and microwaving it to get it to de-crystalize.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it just makes a hot crystalized mess.  In the latter case, don’t throw it away, but use it in the suet recipes.

Here are some foods to avoid (some of these may seem obvious, but so does looking both ways before crossing the street…)
-Apple/pear seeds
-Uncooked dried beans
-Coffee grounds

Without further ado, here is a really quick and easy suet recipe:

1 cup bread crumbs
2 cups melted bacon grease
1 cup corn meal
1 cup steel cut oats
Mix all the ingredients together and press into leftover suet cake molds.  I kinda tossed the ingredients together, so you can play with the amounts to fit into the mold correctly.  If you want to be able to pop the suet out, freeze the suet for a few hours and it should come out easily.  If you want to ensure it comes out, spray some Pam in the tray and then dust with flour before filling.


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The Farm – 2013 Layout

One of the issues with moving is getting all of your services set back up. Power and water usually aren’t a big issue, and this move didn’t prove otherwise. However, getting internet again is proving to be difficult, which makes blogging on the weekends more problematic for the moment. I did manage to get my crop list into a layout. Having spent many months and years unable to grow the amount of veggies that I’ve been desiring, I’ve had plenty of time to read and study. I’ve read up on companion planting, and how to grow the various plants that I want. That said, I’m still very much a complete beginner jumping into the deep end of the pool. I put my layout on paper, or more accurately, in excel. I’m kind of a nerd, so excel seemed like the best option at the time. Plus with the cells, it makes a really nice grid for making things to scale. Unfortunately don’t expect anything like that from me 🙂

I started out wanting to make the layout to scale, and have each square be 6 inches, but I totally abandoned that idea about halfway into the plan. I don’t have enough experience with row spacing, plant spacing and knowing what I’m doing in general to really have anything that exact. So please don’t look at the layout like it’s to scale, and the blank spaces are either placeholders for something that I might grow, or just needed extra room for visualizing my plot. Keep in mind that this is only my initial brainstorm, and the final layout could be completely different.

Now, with my small-but-useful deck that I’ve had for the past 4 years has giving me opportunities to grow veggies in pots. I know cherry tomatoes do well in deck pots, so I have had good luck growing those. This has given me first-hand experience with companion planting and helped me stumble across the knowledge. Growing cherry tomatoes and hot peppers in the same container did very well and I always got really good yields despite the modest size of the containers. They were about 2 feet high by 2 feet width and length. Just enough for a cherry tomato plant and two pepper plants each, or one cucumber plant. Last year I decided to grow black beans. I heard they can grow in Maryland, which is zone 6, so I gave it a shot. The mistake I made was also putting the pepper plants in the same pot. All summer long, I wondered why the pepper plants never took off and grew. They stayed stunted and only put out one or two flowers. That’s when I looked up “what plants not to plant together”, or something like that. Google is smarter than me 99% of the time and it figured out what I wanted to know. There it was, right in front of me, beans and peppers don’t mix. Hooray, an “ah-ha!” moment that I would remember for the day that I had a respectable plot of land to grow on. The black beans themselves did fantastically well though. For a pole bean plant that was grown on a deck in a container, the handful of beans that I harvested was quite impressive. More of an experiment and lesson for later than dinner on the table. The bean stalks had snaked around my deck railings and up and around my blueberry bush. Oh yeah, I had a blueberry bush on my deck too. That was in a much larger container, probably about 3 feet high and 3 feet in diameter. I’m guessing, since I never measured it, but it’s one of the much larger plant containers that you can buy.

Going on a tangent for a little bit, the blueberries were a great lesson too. I knew someday I wanted a row of blueberries 50 feet long, maybe even 2 rows 🙂 So I figured that I needed to learn about them first. Some things I jump into the deep end, and other times I wad into the water first. The blueberries were the latter. I went out to Lowes one spring (EARLY spring) and bought a blueberry starter bush. The little guy was more like a twig than a bush, but I eagerly brought him home to plant and bask in the glory of bushels of blueberries someday. That “someday” would prove to be more of a joking reference than an actual date, more on that in a bit. So, first mistake: I planted it WAY too early. I think I bought the bush in March, and promptly planted it. Its three glorious leaves blowing in the crisp Marchy air. A week later, your standard its-too-early-to-plant-anything-you-idiot frost hit in Maryland. I looked outside onto my deck to see one green and one red leaf left on the blueberry bush. Doh, I should have listened to my mother. She said “It’s easy to remember when to plant in Virginia/Maryland, just wait until Mother’s day.” So, lacking any Farmer’s almanacs or meticulous planning and looking up average frost dates, Mother’s day was a good reference point. I had, of course, forgotten about that, and probably about Mother’s day itself as well for a few years (oops, bad son). For the rest of the spring and summer, those two stubborn leaves hung on, getting what little sunlight they could and storing it up. I kept the bush in the container because so long as those two leaves stay on there, I was going to give it a chance (plus I really didn’t have anything else to plant in there). That first year, there was no additional growth, the frost really hit that bush hard. However, by spring of year two, the little blueberry bush that could showed signs of life. Buds had formed over the winter and what would be the first vertical cane was popping out of the ground.

It’s probably worthy of mentioning at this point that anyone thinking about growing blueberries should know that you won’t get much of anything in terms of berries for at least 3 years after planting. Someone had warned me about that, so at least I was prepared in that aspect.

Also, before I ramble on too much more, I want to mention that the berries form on second year growth. Which means when you have a branch growing (I’m not using the technical terms just to make it easy on anyone new to blueberries) in one year, blueberries will form at the end of that branch the following year.

Now, back to the little blueberry bush. Year two was a good year for growth. There were strong canes that came out of the ground and several smaller branches that put out leaves. No berries this year either, but I was happy that the bush survived and was looking like it would bury me in berries the following year.

Year three arrived and I was ready to finally start getting blueberries. The two canes weren’t done growing I guess, because they didn’t develop the flowering buds at their ends. However, the smaller branches did. I think I counted about 4 flower clusters, and about a dozen or more flowers. So, in “counting your chickens before they hatch”-style, I proudly proclaimed to my wife that we would have at least a dozen blueberries this year, which is a good start. She was of course excited and supportive, but knew better than to believe me when I make ambitious or forward-looking statements. Year three harvest: 3 berries. Looking back, I have a sneaking suspicion that my year-four thieves were already around in year three.

Year four was just last summer, so it’s most vivid in my mind and hopefully the most accurate in my Swiss cheese brain. Now, each time a branch grows, it puts out leaves along the length of it. In the winter after, a larger flower bud forms at the end of that branch. The following spring, the flower buds emerge and smaller branches grow out from that first branch. The next spring, flower buds form at each one of the smaller branches and even smaller branches form from those. So each following year you can get much more berries than the year before. Remember though, pruning is very important since you don’t want branches touching each other, and the more berries that are being produced simultaneously by the bush, the smaller each one will be. You’ll want to find your own “happy middle” in terms of the amount of berries and the size of the berries. So, year four was a good year. By this time, the tiny little twig had grown into a rather large bush with 4 large canes and many side branches coming out from various points. I had done a little pruning in the fall of year three and most pages that I’ve read say not to prune the first 2 or 3 years anyways. I had just removed some sad little branches or ones that touched each other. By my count, there was at least 3 or 4 dozen flowers, so I again proudly proclaimed a basket of blueberries would be sitting on the counter one day this year.

…Sigh. You might be getting the picture why that “someday” thought of blueberries is now more of a joke. Harvest from year four: about a handful. I think maybe 7, but I think I blocked that memory for protection of my sanity. I did learn some great lessons though, and I discovered the identity of my blueberry thief. Now, the latter, since you are probably wondering. Cardinals LOVE blueberries. If I didn’t love watching Cardinals so much, I would have probably been a lot more mad, but I caught him red-feathered one day and actually watched as he masterfully hopped around the bush looking for the choicest, ripe berries. So lesson one: If you want blueberries, get a bird net to go over the bush or bushes. Several online catalogs have pop-up nets that can be placed over one bush if you only have a few, or home improvement stores have bird nets that can be 50 feet long. The nets are by far the best protection against birds. Owls work only for a while, bird feeders at other places in the yard only bring MORE birds, shiny tape or reflective “owl eyes” don’t work, and repellants don’t deter hungry birds. Without my berry thief, I would have harvested a good 3 dozen berries. Blueberries are hardy and pretty much grow themselves without much work at all. I think that the growth over 4 years is not what you’d get in the ground, but still impressive given that it’s 4 year old miracle grow soil that’s in a container on a deck.

Yikes, that was quite a tangent. I might be splitting this post up into two later on, I think a separate blueberry post would be easier to find later on when looking back in the archives. What was this post about in the first place? Oh yeah, the planting layout. If that’s the reason why you’re reading this post, I’m really sorry about the tangent. Maybe you just skimmed through the blueberry part, or at least enjoyed reading it. I’m hoping you scrolled down to the picture, looked at it, and are already doing something else like watching videos of cats or something.

Keep in mind: this isn’t to scale, I’m still a farming beginner, this layout could change, and this might not be the best way to plant what I want to grow.

The Farm - 2013 Layout

The Farm – 2013 Layout

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