Germinating Older Seeds

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Seedheads for next year's calendulas.

Seedheads for next year’s calendulas.

Whether you save your own or buy them, as a gardener, you’re going to have to deal with older-than-ideal seeds. Some seeds are notoriously hard to germinate anyway, but put a year or two on them and notorious can seem impossible. I can’t claim 100% success with the methods below (any gardener who makes a 100% claim about anything in the gardening realm is a mendacious, untruthful, dishonest, duplicitous fibber!) but they often do work.
Create the ideal environment. With fresh seed, you can get away with less than ideal conditions; toss some seed at the ground, sprinkle on a little water and stand back. With older seed, perfection matters. Look up the ideal germination conditions for whatever it is you’re trying to grow and figure out how to create those conditions. When the directions say to scarify or cold-stratify or soak overnight, don’t skip that step; you can’t get away with it when you’re dealing with older seed.

Tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings.

Tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings.


Tinker with the temperature. If it’s 100 degrees in the shade and you’re trying to get lettuce going, it’s a losing cause to direct seed. Odds are the seed won’t sprout until fall, when you’ve already said the heck with it and planted something else in that space. Although lettuce seeds supposedly germinate best at about 75 degrees, it’s a very narrow window. Once the temps climb a mere five degrees to 80, the seeds sulk and refuse to germinate. Place them about two inches apart on a moist paper towel, roll up the towel and put it in a plastic bag, then germinate in the refrigerator for about four to six days. Rather than disrupt the tiny root hairs, I then cut the paper towel in small squares and plant seed plus towel.
Paris White Cos romaine lettuce.

Paris White Cos romaine lettuce.


Cover them. If you just HAVE to plant in place for some reason, water seed in well and cover the soil with a board, burlap or anything else that will help keep the soil cool. I’m not particularly fond of that method because you have to watch it like a hawk and take the board off the minute the seeds germinate. And in my garden, the pill bugs and sow bugs congregate under the board and find the seedlings before I do.
Treat with bleach. You can also try soaking the seeds in 10% bleach (1 part bleach to 10 parts water). Soak the seeds for two hours at 40-60 degrees, then drain and rinse four times with plain water. This speeds up the germination process and increases germination rates.
Good parsley germination; now to thin them!

Good parsley germination; now to thin them!


Add water. Older seeds are often drier than fresh seed. Try soaking them overnight (but no longer, or they may rot instead of sprouting). You could also make sure the soil is thoroughly soaked and then keep it wet for the first 24 hours. Don’t keep watering heavily every day, as you’ll encourage rot and damping off rather than germination, but do water if the soil seems dry. The idea behind these techniques is to make sure the seed is fully hydrated, which promotes germination.
If all else fails and it’s the last available seed of something you really want to grow, direct seed in an out-of-the-way corner or pot and just leave them. Remember, lots of plants manage to get themselves growing without human intervention. It might be next spring, but you could very well find yourself with some seedlings.

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The Broody Hen

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It's hard work, this hatching stuff!

For many who have their own chickens (and always for commercial producers), broody hens are are considered a nuisance. Once they go broody, they stop laying. When you’re trying to raise your own, however, a good broody hen is a pearl beyond price. I know many people like to just turn the whole issue of raising chicks over to a hatchery, but I have a strong aversion to being dependent on outside sources. So (as with most things) I do my chicken raising a bit differently.
Any hen has the potential to go broody, but you’re most likely to see broodiness in certain breeds. Bantams, silkies and cochins are noted for broodiness, and older breeds like Delawares, Orpingtons, Dorkings and the Sussex and Cornish often go broody. Leghorns, Plymouth Rocks, New Hampshire Reds and Rhode Island Reds rarely go broody. Interestingly, crossbreds of the various breeds are more likely to go broody, which makes me suspect it’s a recessive gene. I have found Australorps will go broody fairly often, but my Barred Rocks are less likely to do so. You can certainly keep a few of the strong brooders around just to raise some eggs (hens don’t care if they brood their own eggs or not), but I like to encourage broodiness in my flock so I don’t have to deal with multiple breeds and sizes of chickens and eggs.

Delaware chicks enjoying dinner.

Delaware chicks enjoying dinner.

It’s pretty easy to recognize broodiness. The hen sits on the nest and won’t move even when you gather eggs from under her. She’ll greet you with raised, fluffed feathers, spread her wings over the nest, lower her head and may even peck. You’ll also hear a warning — a long-drawn out “sqwark” — when you reach for the eggs under her. Letting a hen set in a communal area can cause some problems, however. She may go out for breakfast and get back on a completely different nest. Other hens may try to lay in the box she has staked out, leading to squabbles and broken eggs. And once the chicks hatch, other hens may try to steal or hurt the chicks.
Once a hen shows clear signs of broodiness, I like to move her to a broody box. This fancy term can encompass anything from a wooden, wire-side nesting box to an old dog crate. Basically it should be a spot where you can confine your broody hen, safe from predators, with enough room for the chicks once they hatch. At a minimum, figure 24X36 inches, and I think 36X36 is better. A big dog crate is really ideal, and very easy to clean.
I usually give a hen that shows signs of broodiness about a week to prove herself. If she’ll put up with me gathering eggs twice a day and still stay on the nest, she’s ready to move to private quarters. While I’m waiting for confirmation of broodiness, I start collecting setting eggs. Choose “normal” eggs — medium to slightly large, well-shaped (no excessively pointy ends, as they are often thinner and more prone to break), slightly heavy in the hand and good thick shells. Try to get clean eggs, but even if they’re a little soiled, don’t wash them. Put them pointed end down in an egg carton and leave them at room temperature. Turn the egg carton over twice a day. You can hold them for about a week, but a shorter time is better.

"The makings" for chick food -- chopped veggies, dry bread crumbs, hard-boiled egg I also add chopped liver for extra B vitamins.

“The makings” for chick food — chopped veggies, dry bread crumbs, hard-boiled egg I also add chopped liver for extra B vitamins.

Ready the broody box with a good cleaning. Bed it with a fairly fine material that the chicks will be able to walk on (I like fine wood shavings or sawdust). Put in a food dish and water container. Now, go out after dark once the chickens have settled down for the night and bring your broody hen to the box. Many people give her some plastic eggs, smooth rocks or golf balls to sit on for a few days, but I don’t bother; she’s already established her broodiness, and she’ll sit even on an empty nest. After another day or so, when she’s made her nest in the broody box, go out after dark and give her the eggs to set on. A small hen can handle about eight eggs, while a big hen like a Delaware or Australorp can cover 10 to 12. Don’t give her too many eggs, or some will wind up getting chilled and die.
Now you wait. Make sure she has food and water, clean out the broody box as necessary (some people limit their broody hens to scratch feed so their droppings will be firm and easier to clean). Eggs in an incubator tend to go about 21 days before hatching, but a hen usually hatches in 20 days. Once the hen gets off the nest, discard the remaining eggs. I usually leave mama and babies separate from the flock until the chicks are at least a week old. If your broody box is in the coop with the older hens, you can usually just open the door and let them mingle; mama will protect them. Otherwise, move the broody box/dog crate into the coop for a week or so to get everybody familiarized with each other. Or, if you want, you can leave them together until the chicks are fully feathered, then put the babies in their own pen (especially if you’re raising them for meat) and put mama back in with the flock.

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Home-Grown Eggs — Worth It?

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Breakfast eggs.

Breakfast eggs.

Real food — unprocessed, healthy stuff that tastes good and that you can recognize on the plate as something edible — doesn’t cost the same as mass-produced, highly processed stuff. Whether it costs more or less is a point of contention and debate in many circles. Like many food and agricultural topics, it’s complicated. I think it’s important to recognize, however, that there’s a big difference between the cost-effectiveness of raising eggs to sell and raising them for your own use. In addition to the monetary aspects, I don’t think you can have a conversation about whether it’s worth it to raise your own food without considering the quality. When you raise your own food, you know exactly what goes into into it, and what doesn’t go into it — like antibiotics, artificial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and hormones. You also know exactly how healthy your chickens are, and whether your eggs are handled for maximum freshness, nutrition and safety.

Chicken balls (ground meat scraps and fat) ready for the freezer.

Chicken balls (ground meat scraps and fat) ready for the freezer.

I recently ran across an article on the Weston A. Price Foundation website in which the author lined out costs for raising eggs (he was selling them to a CSA). I thought it would be interesting to compare his calculations to my own.
Author Bill Hyde and his wife run their 75-100 chickens on seven acres in Colorado, along with sheep, pigs and goats. The chickens live in moveable pens (chicken tractors) during the summer and fixed coops with yards during the winter. Hyde buys food in addition to using pastures for forage in the summer. He also buys his chicks. He includes other costs, such as the transportation costs of driving to town to sell the eggs, packaging, land and supplies. It sounds as though his permanent coops have lights, although he doesn’t use them to force laying. http://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/the-real-cost-of-real-food/

Chickens in the chicken tractor.

Chickens in the chicken tractor.

Chicken tractor AKA the Terminegger on pasture.

Chicken tractor AKA the Terminegger on pasture.

Although we have much more land (185 acres), I raise my 30-odd chickens in confinement on deep litter — less predator pressure, and I can use the compost the chickens make from the litter and manure in the garden. One pen is made of 5-foot wire fencing panels with a coop that was a pump house in a previous life. The other is a chicken tractor with a small fenced run. Both were built almost entirely with salvaged materials. Although I bought the original chicks, my hens raise their own chicks (I’ve used incubators, but frankly I don’t think they’re worth the effort for a family chicken flock). I feed food scraps — including those from the local school — grain screenings, excess milk and meat scraps from our butchering, as well as weeds and trimmings from the garden. My chicken pens have neither lights nor running water.

Birdseye view.

Birdseye view.

It’s hard to make a direct cost comparison in this situation, since a lot of my pens and structures are made from recycled material. And much of the food is grown here on the ranch or would otherwise be wasted – like excess milk, meat scraps from butchering, spoiled hay and garden weeds. Still, it’s pretty clear to me that It’s VERY cost-effective to raise my own eggs, and if I wanted to sell some, I wouldn’t have any trouble making a profit.
Hyde buys his chicks from commercial hatcheries at around $3.20 per chick. He figures that by the time a hen is ready to lay, he’s put $15.40 into her. That’s basically feed and losses from chicks that die. He also calculates that the average hen will lay 20 dozen eggs over the course the next two years, so he sees his egg cost as $0.77 per dozen. But he also included costs for shelter, a mobile tractor, land, labor, transportation (to take the eggs to market) utilities and supplies. By the time he totes all that up, his eggs cost him $11.52 per dozen, and that’s without profit.

Let us help you, Mom!

Let us help you, Mom!

Although I bought my initial batch of hens as chicks, now they raise their own. No hatchery cost. I don’t feed the chicks special feed, their mama rustles it for them from the stuff I feed my chickens (clabbered milk or chicken cheese, grain screenings, kitchen waste, food scraps from the local school, garden trimmings and weeds, spoiled hay, meat scraps and offal). My chicken pen is built of recycled materials, as is the chicken tractor, and both are at least eight years old. The chicken coop itself started life as a pump house several decades ago. Unlike Hyde, I figure a three-year life for my laying hens. However, I do agree with his calculation of about 120-150 eggs per hen per year. Most of that cost is for the grain screenings we buy in bulk. So, although it costs me about $14 to bring a hen to the point where she’s ready to lay, that means my eggs cost me about $.05 each or $0.60/dozen if I figure a hen will lay about 360 eggs over three years (plus the additional feed, which Hyde seems to leave out of his calculations). Obviously, it’s cost effective to raise my own eggs. And should I decide to sell some, I could easily undercut the going price for equivalent eggs (currently around $5-6 per dozen) and make money.

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