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Not a Moment Too Soon ; The Weber Family's Garden Coop

The Weber family’s new home nestles into a quiet corner of the Myers park neighborhood like a chocolate egg in an Easter basket. Neighbors catch up on the sidewalk while kids ride past on two wheels. The strip of woods just beyond their backyard screens what would be a clear view of spandex clad joggers circling the lake and hopeful anglers casting their lines at Freedom Park. And if they could only see past the wall of elm and ash trees, they would glimpse the Weber family’s new Garden Coop.

Dan Weber is a long way from the farm he grew up on in Southern Illinois, but he and Jen still feel strongly about teaching their kids the value of growing their own produce, appreciating the seasons, and loving the outdoors. They had already been growing fresh produce from a large organic garden in the backyard, so why not have free-range eggs too? And once the idea of having backyard chickens came up, it wasn’t long before a large cardboard box with a heat lamp and lots of peeping appeared in the family’s basement.

Weber Family's Garden Coop from Microfarm Organic Gardens on Vimeo.


Soon the peeping got louder, and the box started to smell. Really smell. Elmo, Bama, JJ, Ruth, Hermione, and CJ Marshmallow needed a permanent home. Something attractive, sturdy, and outside

The Garden Coop was the answer. 

The clean, attractive design fit right into the neighborhood, and the coop has plenty of room for the growing flock to stretch out their wings. In fact, the Garden Coop is large enough for up to eight hens, which means extra space for a smaller flock. The more square feet of coop space you allow per bird, the less likely you’ll have to deal with bullying and other aggressive ‘peck order’ type behavior.

And because the coop essentially sits on the edge of a forest teeming with natural predators like raccoons, possums, hawks, owls, and coyotes, it has to prove itself nightly as pairs of eyes appear in the shadows. But that’s no problem.  The Garden Coop is one of the sturdiest designs out there. The burly cedar frame is joined with 3” exterior screws, and wrapped with 1/2” galvanized hardware cloth - buried up to a foot deep, around the entire perimeter of the coop to thwart even the most determined predators. 

One of the best things about the Garden Coop is covered run built right into the design. The durable, tinted polycarbonate roof panels help keep the hens dry and cozy in wet, winter weather, and cool and comfortable on hot summer days.

The human sized entry door and large hinged clean-out door on the roost box make it easy to refill food and water, and clean the coop. A double nesting box helps prevent squabbles, and little touches like the ladder with natural branch rungs and 4” diameter rustic roost branch make the coop more comfortable.

So how is the Weber family’s backyard flock settling into their new home? “They really seem to enjoy their coop and feel safe in it”, says Jen. “They put themselves to bed every night after getting a few hours to roam around the yard. The hens all have unique personalities and it’s been fun watching them develop over the past couple months. Ruth is definitely the “mother”, Bama is the most assertive and JJ is the friendliest and likes to be held.”




Healthy Fundraising with Seeds for Schools

Raise money for your school, and encourage healthy living in your community? How could anyone say no to that?! Especially when Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s Seeds for Schools program makes it so easy to do both. Every time you sell one of their fun, easy to grow organic seed collections, your school keeps 50% of the price.

Just imagine the educational impact of earning money for school while integrating relevant class topics like agriculture, business, and sustainability. Plus, every buyer receives a beginner-friendly gardening guide - so even brand new growers can taste success in the garden. And Southern Exposure has also partnered with online fundraising platform, FarmRaiser, which has simple tools for accurate orders, excellent customer service, and offers several options for sales and receiving payments. Think your school would enjoy raising money by selling seeds? click here to learn more!


How To Detect and Correct Soil Nutrient Deficiencies

If only your plants could tell you what they needed. A droopy jalapeño pepper plant might shout, “Hola Amigo, how about a little agua over here? Mucho Gracias!” 

Or An overcrowded row of shelling pea plants might politely request, “ A bit more room, if you please. Ah, that’s much better. Splendid, tip top, right-O! 

An hungry eggplant might break in with, “Hey wise guy, when are you gonna come through with that blood meal you owe me? I’m starving over here!”

Plants can’t speak, but they can still tell us when their soil is nutrient deficient.. Once we understand some basic plant sign language, an off colored leaf or sagging stem might as well be a clear call for help through a loudspeaker, or an interstate billboard.


Nitrogen Deficiency
Feeble growth and yellowing of leaves - especially in older growth. 

Nitrogen is the soil nutrient in highest demand and, and levels must be maintained continuously for healthy plant growth. As the major component of chlorophyll, Nitrogen what gives plants their green color. Add blood or fish meal, along with compost to the soil, to increase nitrogen levels.



Phosphorous Deficiency
Stunted growth, purple tinted plant tissue. Frail, brittle leaves and stems.

Phosphorous is the second most important soil nutrient. It is released by organic matter and mineral particles when the soil is warm, moist, and well aerated. Add bone meal or soft rock phosphate to the soil to increase phosphorous levels.



Potassium Deficiency 
Yellow veins between leaves, brown scorching and curling of leaf tips and edges, purple spots on undersides of leaves.

The third most important soil nutrient, potassium usually occurs naturally. Potassium, or Potash, is essential for plant cell functioning. Add wood ashes or green sand to the soil to increase potassium levels.



Calcium Deficiency
Stunted or dying plants, hooked appearance of new growth. Blossom end rot in fruiting vegetables, tip burn in brassica family plants, interior browning in celery and rosette types.

Calcium helps plant rootlets absorb soil nutrients, and also raises soil pH. Even when adequate levels are present in the soil, Calcium uptake is often poor in heavy, soggy soil. Always take steps to ensure good soil drainage, and add Dolomitic lime and gypsum to increase calcium levels in your soil.



Magnesium Deficiency
Leaves display green veins with yellowing in between. Yellowing begins in younger leaves, followed by older growth.

With a good cation exchange ratio, even low magnesium levels are sufficient to grow healthy plants. Add dolomitic limestone or epsom salts to increase magnesium levels. 



Sulfur Deficiency
Yellowing of younger leaves, while older leaves stay green

The leaching action of rain sometimes depletes sulfur levels in deep, sandy soils. Add elemental sulfur or gypsum to the soil to increase sulfur - but use caution as it also lowers soil pH.



A Slender, Sunny, Sliver ; The Russells' Organic Garden

Sometimes an gardener’s zeal for growing organic produce at home is shadowed by the leafy canopy overhead. The shade from mature oak and maple trees certainly do make outdoor living spaces more comfortable, and tame summer cooling bills, but many popular edible plant varieties need a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight. Attempting to grow tomatoes or peppers in anything less will probably lead to garden let-down. For the Russell family, that left just one small, sunny, sliver on the left side of the couple’s Myers Park bungalow.  And while the site may be slender, it has several advantages that make it a suitable site for an organic garden. Most importantly, it receives a nearly a full day of sun exposure, from mid spring through late fall. The garden area lies alongside a brick pathway, just outside the back door, sidestepping the long hike and muddy boots many gardeners live with. A bank of windows conveniently looks right out onto the garden, and a nearby spigot makes hand watering fast and easy.

By request, we built the Russells’ two 3’x8’ Kitchen Garden raised beds 21” tall - a little taller than the Kitchen Garden’s standard 18” height. The raised beds are made with untreated Eastern Red Cedar, which is famously resistant to insects and decay. The Kitchen Garden design’s height and seating cap make working in the garden way more comfortable for gardeners, and nearly impossible for rabbits to get into. 

We fill our raised beds with an OMRI approved organic soil blend that contains no native soil. This soilless mix of pine bark fines, mushroom compost and slate pebbles stays light and loamy, maintaining excellent drainage and soil aeration season after season.  

And to free up a little more family time and help ensure consistent watering - even when the family is away on vacation - we installed a Netafim 1/2” drip irrigation system in the garden beds. The drip system is connected it to the property’s main irrigation system, which allows the Russells to adjust and automate their organic garden’s watering schedule from the main irrigation control panel.

With plenty of sunlight, premium organic soil, and automated watering, the Russells' are well on their way to a prize winning organic garden. Is your property too shaded for an organic garden? Have another look - you just may find a nice little nook with everything you need.





5 Reasons Gardening is Good for Your Health

As if all that tasty home-grown produce weren’t reason enough, scientific studies have shown that the very process of gardening itself can lead to better health and happiness. So go ahead and lace up your boots and reach for a rake, in the knowledge that you just might add health and happiness to your reputation for the freshest tasting organic produce in the neighborhood.


Reduces Stress

Being outside, around plants can help minimize feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, and organic gardening achieves this in an inspiring way. A study in the Netherlands indicated that a group who gardened after completing a stressful task  showed lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than a second group who read indoors, after completing the same task. Gardening helps reduce the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure, and can even reduce your risk of having a stroke. Plus, direct contact with sunlight increases vitamin D and calcium levels, which builds stronger bones and immune system, and has also been shown to improve mood. In one study, patients recovering from gall bladder surgery in a room with a view of nature recovered faster than those whose window looked out a brick wall.



Aerobic Exercise

When you bend, stretch, and lift to amend soil, turn over your compost, or plant new seedlings, your cardiovascular system is worked and major muscle groups are strengthened. Gardening also helps ease chronic pain and joint stiffness, and improves range of motion. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just one hour of light gardening can burn up to 330 calories - more than lifting weights for the same amount of time. The National Institute of health suggests 30-45 minutes of gardening, 3-5 times a week as part of a good exercise strategy.


Increases Patience and Compassion

Scientific research suggests that those who spend time around plants have more compassion for other people. This means they’re more likely to try to help others, and often have more positive, meaningful relationships. Simply being outside in a green space, increases your compassion for nature which in turn builds empathy for others who share that with you. Caring for plants is the ultimate lesson in patience - an often slow process, contingent on factors beyond our control like sunlight and temperature. Gardening develops a deeper sense of timing and rhythm as you learn to work with the seasons and outdoor environment, instead of attempting to overpower them through human technology.



Lowers Risk of Dementia

Two different studies have shown that the exercise tied to gardening can help decrease the risk of developing dementia. In one study, a group of older adults who gardened during the 16 year period of the study, showed as much as 47% lower risk of dementia than a control group of peers that didn’t garden.



Strengthens Immune System

Research indicates that children who are exposed to soil in early childhood develop healthier, stronger immune systems compared to children who are kept in a more sterile environment. Besides having more fun outside playing in the dirt, these kids also tend to have a lower rate of asthma, eczema and allergies later in life. Some studies even suggest that inhaling the beneficial, soil dwelling  M. vaccae bacteria, while digging in soil, or even being outdoors, can increase serotonin levels, and reduce anxiety.