Roots 'n' Shoots: 2014

Saturday, 27 December 2014

The C Files: How to raise chickens – Egg production

Chickens are a popular source of protein, due to their low-cost of raising and dual use as meat and eggs for protein production. South Africans are especially fond of chicken and it represents the most consumed protein in SA. Seeing that eggs are an easy, accessible and economic way to produce home-grown protein it is fitting to dedicate a post entirely to the production of eggs.

Egg anatomy

Chicken domestication has resulted in an evolutionary misfit, where hens are capable of laying eggs without the presence of the cock. In the wild such a scenario would never occur as it wastes valuable energy (from the hen’s point of view of producing the eggs) and resources (loss of an egg that could have given rise to a breeding member of the species). Therefore, eggs used for consumption remain unfertilised (it also limits the gross factor of chancing upon an underdeveloped embryo).

Anatomy of amiotic/unfertilised egg

Egg shell, inner and outer membranes: Theses are protective layers of calcium carbonate (shell) and collagen proteins (membranes). The pigment that gives the eggs their colour is deposited in the oviduct and is breed specific. Please see my Layers & Nest Business post for breed (and egg shell colour) information.

Chalaza: Suspends the yolk within the albumen

Albumen: The egg white that protects the yolk and provides nutrients to the developing embryo in fertilised eggs. It consists of 90% water and 10% dissolved proteins with low cholesterol ~1% rating.

Vitelline membrane: Protects the egg yolk and separates it from the albumen.

Yolk: Includes the nucleus of pander, germinal disc, yellow and white yolks.  The nucleus of pander contains essential proteins for embryo development where the germinal disc gives rise to the embryo. Egg yolk contains 43% of the total egg protein as well as saturated & unsaturated fatty acids and has higher cholesterol rating that the egg white. Egg yolk colour depends on the diet of the chicken.

Air cell: Forms at the blunt end of the egg after it has been laid and cools down. The size of the air cell is linked to its quality: fresher eggs have smaller air cells (AA grade) and older eggs have larger air cells (A grade).

Cuticula: Also known as the bloom is a protective layer that reduced moisture loss and bacterial contamination of the egg’s contents. It is advised not to wash eggs to keep the bloom intact and increase egg storage life as well as quality.

Chicken diet and age influences yolk colour and egg size

As with most all animals, healthy hens lay eggs. Fat, sick, stressed or moulting chickens do not lay eggs. Often the weather also has an effect on egg production, for instance during autumn or spring, a sudden cold front might reduce egg production for one or two days. Very hot weather in summer, such as a heat wave, can also cause a pause in production. Chickens also lay little to no eggs in winter.

The size of the egg depends on the age and breed of chicken. Light breeds generally lay smaller eggs whereas heavy breeds lay larger eggs. When young hens start to lay; their eggs are smaller and increase in size until their first moulting (in their second year), after this the egg doesn’t really get any bigger. Also as the hens age they tend to lay fewer eggs as numbers are traded for size.

Egg sizes: Traditional scales and modern range (slight variation based on country)

Traditional Size
Traditional Mass (g)
Modern Size
Modern Mass (g)
Size 0
Greater than 75 

Size 1
70-75 (2.47-2.65 oz)
Jumbo/King size
70+ (2.47+ oz)
Size 2
65-70 (2.29-2.47)
Extra-large (XL)
64-70 (2.26-2.47)
Size 3
60-65 (2.11-2.29)
Large (L)                           57-63 (2.01-2.22)
Size 4
55-60 (1.94-2.11)
Size 5
50-55 (1.76-1.94)
Medium (M)
50-56 (1.76-1.97)
Size 6
45-50 (1.59-1.76)
Small (S)
43-49 (1.52-1.73)
Size 7 
Less than 45
35-42 (1.23-1.48)

Koekoek's egg is on the right and a Leghorn egg is on the left.
The Leghorn egg is 53 g (1.87 oz) whereas
Koekoek's is a whopping 94 g (3.32 oz)!
Probably the reason why she's so cranky all the time - LOL!

Yolk colour depends in the diet of the chicken and becomes darker (sometimes orange) when chickens are allowed to forage for plant based material and insects which contain a large portion of fat-soluble pigments, for example carotenes in plants (prominent in carrot roots). Diets based mostly on wheat result in pale yellow yolks, medium yellow yolks are a result of feed supplemented with yellow corn, dark yellow yolks result from alfalfa and insect foraging. Red, green and orange coloured yolks are a result of chicken feeding on lots of greenery or high-pigmented seeds/grains.

For maximum egg production and high quality eggs; keep your chickens well fed and limit stress. If your chickens are free range they get most of what they need through their foraging and pellets, extra protein and calcium is supplied through insects and grubs. In winter you might want to supplement their calcium and protein by feeding calcium dust (such as those you get for reptile pets) or crushed eggshells (washed & dried) and cat food/green forage respectively (cat food maximum twice a week as it has a lot of fat, green forage like alfalfa which is high in protein can be grown and fed to the chicken in winter as a healthier supplement). See my Feed and Watering Post for more dietary requirements of chickens.

Egg Glitches & Abnormalities

Sometimes eggs are speckled which can occur due to uneven calcification of the shell or uneven bloom coating. This happens when chickens start to lay again after a long period of not laying (such as moulting) or is a natural characteristic of that particular chicken’s reproductive system – so no worries about speckled eggs. Other egg glitches are wobbles or wind eggs, all of which happen occasionally and don’t indicate any health issues with your hens. However some eggs abnormalities can be an indicator of chicken health.

Problem eggs include:

Bloody shells: Sometimes occurs in new layers, but can indicate excess protein in the diet or coccidiosis infection.

Soft shells or missing shells: Usually due to a stressful event, like a big fright, chickens may lay an egg without a shell. Repeat occurrences may indicate calcium or vitamin D deficiency or disease.

Egg with missing shell

Non-problem eggs:

Chalky or glassy shells: A glitch during shell formation or bloom deposits. Eggs are safe to eat.

Chalky shells, uneven development

Thin shells: May occur in new layers, or during winter when additional calcium supplement through insect exoskeletons decrease. Repeat occurrence will indicate a calcium deficiency which can be easily supplemented or less often respiratory disease.

Wobbles: A formation malfunction with various results, such as highly pointed eggs or eggs with wavy/uneven surfaces, all of which occur from time-to-time.

Wobble egg

Wind eggs: An egg without a yolk and contains fibrous membranes. Likely in new layers and sometimes when hens start laying after a period of moulting.

Broken eggs: Likely due to rough handling by chickens, such as scratching in the nest or sometimes eggs arrive a little bit early/late while the chickens are roosting and the unfortunate egg lands with a splash on the floor below… cracked or broken egg should rather not be eaten as particles/micro-organisms might have entered the egg.

Egg collection and storage

Eggs can generally be collected once a day, but do not let them multiply too much in the nest as this may trigger broodiness in your chickens or if one brake all would have to be destroyed for risk of salmonella infection. For coop and nest box dimensions please see my Housing & Coops Post.

Not washing eggs after collection is preferable as to not remove the bloom that protects the egg from microbial infection and keeps moisture inside, but sometimes they might be a bit dirty and you would want to wash them with water and a soft cloth to remove any dirt. Eggs are stored with the pointed side down in the refrigerator. The key to long lasting fresh eggs is to prevent moisture loss and bacterial contamination, methods include

Storage of fresh home-produced eggs: Fresh eggs are those processes on the day they were laid. Reference: Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow (2010).
Storage time
Yolks in water
2 days

Whites in sealed jar
4 days

Hard-cooked, shell intact
2 weeks

Whole (raw)
5 weeks

6 months
Water glass (Sodium silicate syrup)
1 part water glass to 10 parts boiled water, pour cooled over fresh eggs with 5cm above eggs and refrigerate. No flavour change
6 months, 1oC (34oF)
Oiled (white mineral oil)
Dip eggs in cooled heat sterilised (82oC, 180oF) 24 hours after being laid. Keep for up to 4 months in carton, after which flavour changes
7 months, -0.5oC (31oF)
Fresh eggs are heated in water to 54oC (130oF) for 15-18 minutes. So, basically super-hard boiled eggs.
8 months, 1oC (34oF)
Whole (contents whisked together) or whites/yolks separated
12 months, -18oC (0oF)
For more in-depth information about preserving chicken eggs, please see the Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow (2010).

Fresh eggs can last a long time and are safe to eat a months after they were laid. The egg freshness test involves floating it in a bowl of water, fresh eggs sink and bad eggs float. We did a float test with our eggs to see whether or not we should freeze them away for the winter. This one was labelled (pic below) in early February and should have started floating upwards (at the blunt end where the air cell increases with age), but it only started floating in late June – almost 6 months later! The egg got a bit lighter and glugged when shook as the bloom was removed due to the multiple water immersions and the moisture evaporated from the inside. So you can just horde a few eggs during the summer for the winter months when egg laying is almost non-existent.

Water float egg freshness test

Else you can freeze the eggs away in ice cubes either whole (after whisking the contents together) or by separating the whites and yellows. You can add salt or sugar to them and use for savoury or sweet preparations, respectively.

Refrigeration is the best option for long term storage, but simple cooking of methods, such as hard-cooked eggs will only keep for 2 months tops. Whereas pickling, oil, thermostabilised or frozen eggs keep far longer.

Egg excess and selling

Backyard chicken eggs

If you have a lot more eggs than you can eat, you can sell the extra and will likely get enough money in return to pay for the chicken feed and general maintenance. Although you are allowed to sell your eggs, you may require a permit as per your municipal by-laws. Other requirements may include the stamping of your eggs as a symbol of origin (organic, free range) and quality.

Egg quality stamp

Some sales are exempted from municipal regulations, such as door-to-door/farm shop sales or direct sales to family and friends. Please be sure to check your local municipal by-laws. I can't seem to find the regulations regarding the selling of backyard chicken eggs for South Africa. I could only find by-laws regarding the Keeping of Poultry in the Johannesburg and surrounding areas.

If all else you can hand them out to friends and family (this is seen as a gift and no regulations apply, but receivers might give you a small donation towards chicken feed J).

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Saturday, 22 November 2014

Tamarillo (Tree Tomato) - How to Grow: Fruit of the Month

Tamarillo stats/requirements at a glance

Ease of Raising:
Daily check-ups
Partial shade
Absolutely, train for optimal production
Time to Harvest:
Forever, 5+ months
Frost Hardiness:
Frost tender, can’t cope light frost


Most Problematic Nemesis:
Aphids, Whitefly, Leafhoppers

Container Plant:
Yes, easier to provide protection then

Solanum betaceum
Quick intro

Tama-whatdayasay?!? This would be the likely response of most of my readers, except perhaps those from New Zealand. The tamarillo is quite the exotic fruit for those outside Oceania and is suitable to backyard fruit growing. It makes and interesting ornamental specimen and the fruits have their own unique flavour to boot.


The tamarillo’s history is very obscure and not much literature is available on the matter. It is a native of the Peruvian Andes, South America. It was domesticated and cultivated before the discovery of America. The first internationally marketed crop was in Australia during 1996.  

It is locally produced and very popular in New Zealand, whereas smaller production takes place in Rwanda, South Africa (although I have never seen one in the super markets!), India, Hong Kong, China, USA and Australia.

Science Stuff

Tamarillo, Solanum betaceum, previously known as the Tree Tomato, belongs to the Solanaceae family, which includes other well-known favourites such as the potato, tomato, capsicum peppers and even deadly nightshade!

It received its namesake fairly recently to distinguish it from the common garden tomato, seeing as the fruits are very similar in appearance, but certainly not taste. ‘Tama’ was retrieved from Maori and means ‘leader/leadership’. ‘Rillo’ is thought to have been taken from the Spanish ‘amarillo’, which is yellow. (So the tamarillos are yellow leaders!? LOL!). Other names include Tomarillo and Tamamoro. There are also several scientific names, therefore tamarillos are also synonymous with Cyphomandra betacea, Cyphomandra crassifolia, Pionandra betacea, Solanum crassifolium and Solanum insigne.

Growing Tamarillos

Tamarillos can be grown from seed or a one/two year old plant from the nursery and planted in the garden once the threat of frost has passed. 

Tamarillos are sub-tropical plant and will grow well in warm climates, especially regions that are also suited for citrus cultivation. In very hot and dry climates (such as South Africa) the plant will do well in half-day shade. It requires fertile and well-drained soil, as with most Solanum crops, it is a heavy feeder and will not tolerate water-logging. On the flip side it needs a lot of water due to its sallow root system and a heavy layer of mulch will prevent drying out which can adversly effect fruit production.

Tamarillo Tree
Solanum betaceum

It is an evergreen semi-tree (up to 5 meters tall), although it can be deciduous in cool climates. It is fast growing and will reach peak production after 4 years with a life expectancy of 8-12 years. It grows as a single upright trunk with lateral branches and has very large heart-shaped leaves. Fruits are borne on laterals, so once the desired height is achieved, snip off the growing top(s) to encourage lateral formation. Laterals will carry clusters of white flowers followed by 3-12 egg-shaped fruits per cluster. Laterals that have fruited must be removed and replaced with new branches as they will produce less fruits in the following year.

Tamarillos start to produce fruits from 18 months to 2 years. Fruits can be produced all year round in climates with little seasonal variation, but in South Africa fruits start to set in summer and only ripen in autumn-mid winter. It may seem a bit strange to grow them if they take so long to ripen, but it is truly wonderful to have some ‘fruits’ in the middle of winter! LOL!

Pests and disease

Aphids, leafhoppers and whitefly are a big problem and can amass huge numbers on the new deep red growth. Building up plant resistance through regular fertilising is key and when pests are noticed, (usually when leaves curl at their tips) the culprits will be hiding underneath. Remove all pests as soon as possible. I generally squish them when I see them, but should this be a little gross for you J, you can whip up one of my home-made environmentally friendly pest control recipes.

New leaves susceptible to attack!

If constant vigilance against whitefly and aphids isn’t enough, tamarillos are susceptible to nematodes, tomato worm, tamarillo mosaic virus and powdery mildew.

Other Tamarillo Tips

It will be easier to take care of and provide protection to your tamarillos when they are planted in pots, this means a quick retreat should any ominous weather threaten. Also keep them close to an entrance or kitchen door so that you can inspect them daily for pests, disease or drought.

Tamarillos can be a nuisance to grow if you don’t provide adequate protection. They are intolerant and susceptible to just about everything; frost sensitive, intolerant of waterlogging, drought, strong winds, devastated by hail, cannot stand salt laden soils and pests can be a major problem.

This implies very good soil preparation and thorough examination of its permanent location. Mine are situated against the wall inside a little recess where about 30 cm of roof protrudes over the plants. Here it is protected from the harsh mid-day sun (11h00-13h00), it is tied to the burglar bars to prevent wind damage also frost doesn’t get to it there due to the overhang of the roof. 

Harvesting & Storing

The tomato-looking fruits are ready to harvest once they are evenly coloured and soft to the touch. The fruits come in an array of colours ranging from yellow, orange, and red to purple. Some also have longitudinal stripes. The yellow/orange ones are sweeter and the reds more acetous. They have a very interesting taste, not to everyone’s delight, something like a cross between a granadilla and rock melon. The skin isn’t eaten as it has an unpleasant bitterness.

Unripe fruit, green and purple
Solanum bataceu
Ripe fruit have and even colour (orange)
 and less pronounced longitudinal stripes

Tamarillos do not ripen at the same time and several harvests will be necessary. Pruning is key to good fruit yield and to limit uneven ripening. They are harvested by pulling in a snapping motion, I prefer using scissors, leaving 2-3 cm of the stem still attached for longer storage.

The fruits can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 10 weeks, but discolouration can occur should they be subjected to temperature below 3oC (38oF).  They are versatile and can be eaten raw, made into jam, chutneys and added to stews. Tamarillos have a lot of pectin, making their preservation easier. For some tamarillos recipes, see the experts @ Tamarillo - Fruit for life from New Zealand.


Tamarillo flowers represent larger and more waxy tomato flowers that can be white, yellow, pink or purple. Tamarillos are pollinated by insects, if you have a lack of pollinators you would likely have to pollinate the flowers yourself by using a soft horse-hair paint brush. Tamarillos are self-fertile but cross-pollination between trees increases successful fruit set. Therefore more than one tree is recommended for cross-pollination. To ensure cross-pollination try to synchronise your tamarillo trees and their flower production. This is done by snipping off any ‘early’ flowers from the one tree when the other has none, this should delay the first flush and hopefully the next flush will be in sync.

Tamarillo Flowers
Solanum betaceum

Tamarillo seeds are similar to tomato seeds. Tamarillos are easy to rise from seed, which will produce upright trees, or cutting that will result in a more shrub-like plant. Seeds will germinate in 4 weeks when grown in 15oC (59oF) soil or 2 weeks in 25oC (77oF). 

Something interesting: Pepino, Solanum muricatum

Another native from South America and sister species to the Tamarillo, the sweet Pepino (pepino dulce to differentiate from the Spanish word ‘pepino’ that means cucumber) is another melon-tasting exotic fruit that can be grown in backyard gardens.

Sweet Pepino
Solanum maricatum

The plant and flower are more reminiscent of an eggplant, but the fruits resemble melons. It has a taste of a mix between a cucumber or pear and a honeydew melon. Therefore is also called the Pepino melon or pear melon. I would imagine that its growth requirement are similar to most other Solanums, so hot climate with lots of watering and some pruning should improve the fruit yield. I have seen them in the nurseries recently so they should be easy to come by. The Pepino, similar to the Tamarillo has several other common and scientific names, but they are far more numerous i.e 10+ scientific names and additional varieties which are not formally recognised.

My Tamarillos

My Tamarillo has quite the story. My uncle had a tamarillo in his yard and it produced so much fruit that most lay wasted on the ground. I asked him whether I can have some of the fallen fruit for seed. I sowed about 20+ seeds and only 3 germinated. I lost one to disease and the other two made it to maturity (planted in 2010). They made their first flowers two years ago (2012), but no fruit came from it and in 2013 we had about 20. This year we have many fruits on each as they enter their 4th year. What happened to the parent tree from whence mine came? My uncle removed them to plant palms!!! I was not impressed to hear this, to my mind the tamarillo was much more of a feature plant and definitely more valuable than stupid palms…*Sigh*

Tamarillo flowers and fruit at various developmental
stages, Solanum betaceum.

If you don’t have an unappreciative family member with a tamarillo plant available for propagation, I have noticed for the first time this year that they are available at selected nurseries. I did see some at Garden World, please see my Nurseries & Stockist page for contact information.

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Please share with fellow gardening enthusiasts via the various sharing buttons at the end of posts/pages! Else you can vote for posts through the Google reactions bar at the end of articles. To stay up to date I have provided several reader and social networking platforms with which to subscribe: TwitterPinterestRSS Feed Reader or Email/Follow directly using the Blog Followers widget on the left hand side toolbar. Thank you for reading and please feel free to ask if questions arise - I appreciate comments and ideas too! 😆

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Lunar Gardening Revisited & Biodynamics

Demeter, Greek Goddess of the Harvest

Dr. Vollmers Wörterbuch der Mythologie aller Völker,
third edition Stuttgart 1874,
Wikimedia Commons

My previous post on the same topic has been surprisingly popular and so almost exactly a year later I decided to revisit the topic.

In my previous post I mentioned that lunar gardening has the habit of taking over your life as it dictates when you garden as oppose to your daily schedule. But I have wanted to try lunar gardening again and decided that maybe I can ‘make time’ for it.

So, before I dove into lunar planting in the garden I first wanted to see whether there are any proper scientific studies done on lunar gardening that indicates whether it has a beneficial effect or not. I searched all the dungeons of the internet and didn’t have much success. Most of the scientific papers either investigated the lunar cycles influencing the hatching or emergence in some insect species or the effects on animals. If they investigated direct lunar influence in plant growth, the study was usually poorly designed and that you cannot accurately interpret the results as they were not measuring just the influence of the moon cycles (too many other factors influenced the experiment).

Reading about lunar gardening around the internet it seems that many do not believe in it, whereas others claim that the moon has some mystical effect on plants when you garden by the moon… I am going to give my opinion on the matter and all the new stuff that I have been able to find regarding lunar gardening:

– On that note I would like to make this an open discussion topic, 
so please feel free to add your opinions on this 
at the comments section here under – J

I do not necessarily believe in the hocus-pocus of the lunar gardening and those who claim that the moon simply cannot have an effect on plant growth should provide me with evidence of such a claim (I read one comment stating that physics simply doesn’t allow for it, but no such equation or proof was later provided so that I can make up my own mind and I also haven’t seen any physicists trying to de-bunk it so far…). Also some horticulturalists state that the health and yield of vegetables do improve with lunar gardening, but not because of any moon-effects, merely because of the fact that a more regular garden management schedule as imposed by the lunar gardening calendar allows you to better plan and take care of your garden. This may be true and if so – why do people then have an issue with it? If it does no harm, why are people that implement lunar gardening seen as raging lunatics who likely dance naked by the moon as well? LOL!

So that is basically my two cents on the matter – I like the idea of lunar gardening because it makes me feel that I am working with nature and not against. The same applies for my views on conservation agriculture: natural or near-natural systems [AKA organic] work better and if the plants bode well by such a system regardless of the reason – why shoot it down? My question would be rather: Why not? You aren’t harming anything or anyone by incorporating it into your gardening schedule and I am also not going to judge those who do feel a certain ‘magic’ from doing it.

Yet, I still have some issues with the structure of it all, the planting of certain crops for only one week per month isn’t practical; surely there must be more refined systems than the simple lunar cycle. After some more surfing I saw that lunar gardening forms a large part of biodynamics; another method of sustainable organic farming, on which you can read more here: The Moon Gardener. In this book they also introduce you to Maria Thun.

Maria Thun, 1941
© 2013

Maria Thun devoted her life to studying the effects of moon gardening, and its associated zodiac, on the growth and yield of crops. See developed her own biodynamic calendar based on her observations and the sidereal lunar cycle. For more information on her methods and her biography, please see the following two sites: Maria Thun, Biodynamics Association and Maria Thun Biography. She published a biodynamics calendar each year and has made it available world-wide. I had a look-see of the principles and organisation of the calendar, the 2013 Calendar (The See Inside Option on the right!). The booklet explains clearly the methods and application of her calendar and I really like the fact that you can plant multiple types of crops each week (of course depending on the moon and constellations at the moment J) as well as the overall user-friendliness of the calendar.

Radish trails Maria Thun
© 2013

Unfortunately it is a bit late (not to mention silly J) to purchase the 2014 calendar, but the 2015 calendar (a tradition continued by her son Matthias Thun since 2012) is already out and you can get it online at:

The Maria Thun Biodynamic Calendar 2015:
Kalahari: R138
Loot: R135

I would strongly recommend the courier option as you will likely never receive your calendar through the SA Post Office at its current non-operational state…bah!

I have ordered mine and I am thoroughly impressed with the quality of the booklet at only R135! They also discuss some burning issues that their readers enquire about and they include a handy poster of the calendar (good to stick up onto the fridge I’d say!). I am looking forward to using it once 2015 comes around, but until then I am implementing the basic and simple lunar plating principles. I have been ‘lunar gardening’ for two months now, but because of all the changes in the garden (switching to organic fertiliser and conservation agriculture) I cannot yet comment on its advantages (other than the garden looks like a jungle since I implemented all the organic fertilisers, conservation agriculture and lunar gardening techniques).

The Constellations, plants and associated jobs Maria Thun
© 2013

If you are interested in Biodynamic farming, The Moon Gardener book I mentioned previously covers that topic very well, but I will likely not be able to implement it in my own garden as Cattle (and all their associated products and waste LOL!) are central to biodynamics.

Please let me know as to your views on Lunar Gardening (or similar system) and if you have implemented it in your garden please share your experiences!

Related Post:

Lunar Gardening: Planting by the phases of the moon

- Update 11 November 2014 - 

I have been made aware of a South African based Moon Calendar by no less than the author herself, Ilona Thorndike. Our current discussion is over at my About Page.

You can find her Moonlight calendar to order on her website: Moon Time. It includes the cycles of the moon and the associated zodiac constellations specific to Southern Africa.

All pictures (except Demeter) are screen-grabs from The Maria Thun Biodynamic Calendar 2013, See Inside Option and are copyright by Floris Books, Edinburgh. Reference website: Floris Books.

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