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Archive for the ‘Chickens’ Category

I finally made it out into the garden yesterday after a long hiatus (from both garden and garden blog). David got a job in Olympia (woot!) and so I’ve been trying to make the most of his absence (pooh!) by working a shit-ton in lab (hoping to graduate by next summer!!!) and have consequently been ignoring the garden. Weekends have become very busy. So far David has come back to Seattle each weekend, and we race around town running errands and trying to get stuff done while also trying to spend 24/7 with each other. (I don’t know if that’s the correct usage of 24/7…) But this weekend had a good chunk of gardening together time, and was awesome.

The fallen leaves that we put in the chicken run have been turned into a rich, composty, soil-like material and we raked out 3 wheel-barrows full and spread them over the garden beds. This required raking up the fallen leaves that had been covering the beds, which we then dumped into the chicken run to make more compost. (We’re so clever!!) The leaves had lots of nice worms in them that were gobbled up in a frenzy. I offered one giant worm (fatter than a pencil, 6 inches long) to Cornelia and she hesitated at first, lunging her body forward and back like someone working up the courage to leap over a stream. Then it was BAM! BAM! and the worm was gone.

I then transplanted a bunch of things that sorely needed transplanting- 6 big lettuce plants, 2 rows of arugula (i’m trying to be more adventurous with salads this year), little tiny leeks in the bottom of a trench inside a mini greenhouse, an assortment of 6 broccoli plants, one cabbage, and 16 swiss chard plants. I sheltered all the transplants with plastic covers so that a) they’d stay warm enough, b) the rain wouldn’t leach out all the nitrogen from the chicken poopy compost we just added (organic gardening can cause eutrophication too, don’tcha know), and c) the surface of the dirt would stay dry to keep the slugs away… maybe… we’ll see if that works.

I also broadcast buckwheat cover crop seeds over the beds that will grow tomatoes and squash/cukes/melon later this summer. Buckwheat is supposed to pull up potassium from the subsoil which will help the plants set fruit… if our subsoil is accessible by buckwheat root and actually has any potassium in it.

Of note: covering the garden beds with fallen leaves over the winter has turned out to be rad. The dirt underneath is nice and soft and full of worm castings. And the leaves are easy to clean up when it comes time to plant in the spring. I like the idea of crimson clover cover crop, but it’s harder to deal with in the spring if i want to practice no dig gardening. Normally one would mow the clover and turn it into the soil 3 weeks before planting to let it rot and provide organic matter and nitrogen to the next crop. But that requires a lot of digging, when i am attempting to do no digging this season. I could chop the clover down, give it to the chickens, and then let the roots rot in place for a few weeks before planting… but that requires waiting, and the ground is bare for a few weeks. I could pull the plants out and compost them, but then the soil structure is disturbed- perhaps not as much as by digging, but still. Then again, the chickens do love to eat clover… shrug.

Have not yet attempted any grafting. My 15 (ungrafted) tomato plants are getting big, so I may just try to graft my curcurbits this year and try the tomatoes next year. Or i may try some tomatoes and give them to neighbors who have space… as long as they keep a good record of the plants’ performance compared to non-grafted controls of the same variety. I like science.

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Snow!

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I read this article in Grist today about how it can be hard for small livestock farmers to raise animals that are both organic and pasture-raised.

I understand that the cost of organic chicken feed may be prohibitive and agree that choosing to allow the chickens to free-range over buying organic feed for confined chickens is the right choice.  But… i wonder if the pasture that these chickens are raised on couldn’t be improved in some way to lessen the proportion of the birds’ diet that needed to come from purchased feed.

In this video, Joel Salatin of Polyface farms (of Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food, Inc. fame) describes the large variety of forage plants that grow in his pastures and how wonderful they are for his cattle.   I know that chickens did evolve to eat and digest grains (unlike cows), so it may make more sense to feed cattle on this pasture alone than chickens.   Chickens love grass and clover and… anything green- i think ours would eat the entire garden in a couple of hours if they had the run of it- but also need extra protein to produce their eggs (and to grow into nice meat birds quickly).  What about throwing some kale in the mix?  That stuff is amazingly nutritious- chock full of vitamins, calcium, and protein.   A sprinkling of wild garden kale seeds or a mix of siberian kales would probably do really well in most climates, and would self seed every spring just like other plants in the pasture.  Or grow some oats, barley, or buckwheat in there?

Of course, I don’t know what I’m talking about… I’m just sayin’… might be worth a try.

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Today for a study break, i finished pulling out the tomato plants (with David’s help) and hung them up with the rest in the garage.  Dave and KK say that this is the way to get your green tomatoes to ripen- hang the whole plant upside down and wait.  I picked a couple ripe sungold cherry tomatoes today from the plants i hung up last weekend, so i think it’s working…??

Then, i added worms to the new worm bin that has just been collecting food outside the back door with no worms to eat it.  I pulled back the top layer of bedding in the old bin and picked out a good handful of worms, then noticed some grub-looking things in the next layer down and picked a few of them out to show David.  We decided we didn’t want whatever they were going to grow into to take over our worm bin, so we went back out to dig them out and give them to the chickens.  We discovered there were way more of these grublets than we were expecting- a gross amount- there were just grubs on grubs on grubs.  We had been picking them out by hand and putting them in a bowl, but when we came across the mother load, David just dug in and scooped out big handfuls.  It was fairly disgusting… and stinky, since our worm bin is too wet!  In any case, we determined there were too many to dig up, so we piled what we had in the chicken run.

Chickens seem to have some sort of reptilian shape-recognition with food items.  If you put a square of cornbread or half a loaf or bread or a baked half squash in the run for them, they’re like, WTF is that?!   They’ll eventually eat it after minutes (sometimes hours) of sideways investigative glances, pecking, flicking whatever it is off their beaks all over the place.  There are other things that they just immediately know are food, even though they haven’t seen it up close yet.  If you shake anything grain-like out of a jar, they immediately come running to gobble it up.  So, small, dry, and tumbly = food.  Apparently the form of a grub- plump, oblong, sluggishly squirmy- also triggers immediate recognition and spurs them to start gobbling with out too much investigation as to what these yucky larval stage things that were just dug up out of a box of rotting food actually are.

We also picked some fall broccoli and some tomato stragglers, and collected the dry runner bean pods to save the seeds for next year.  Aren’t they beautious?

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Kate and I planted these pea and kale seedlings out in the garden today…oh, how I missed gardening in the rain.  Hopefully these 32 kale plants will survive and produce incredible amounts of proteinaceous vitamin-filled leafy greens for our chickenlets.  About 4 days after planting them out in the garden bed, 75% of them are still alive, 20% are chewed down to the stems, and 5% are just…gone.  I’ll be happy if half of them turn into real grown up plants.  When David and i come back from our Idaho visit, we’ll put up a protective cloche over these guys to keep them alive and a bit more productive through the rain and cold.

The tomatoes are finally slowing down… but we still can’t keep up.  After two long weekends out of town, we have bowls of uneaten tomatoes, and i worry that most of the plants outside will be rotted.  Still hoping that we’ll get back in time to either put a cover over them to keep most of the rain off, or pull up the plants and hang them upside down to let the green tomatoes ripen- a trick learned from Kate and Dave.  Apparently the ripeness flows out of the vines and into the tomatoes without causing them to rot, and you have ripe tomatoes through the winter.

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Dude.  I just found out that Bee Balm (a fantastic pollinator attractant) has an aroma very similar to Bergamot, and can be used to flavor Earl Grey tea, one of my favorites.  That’s exciting.

Also, I realized that we can make egg noodles with our extra eggs.  Whole wheat egg noodles. With fresh-ground whole wheat from David’s grain grinder.

And, yesterday we bought some common vetch and winter rye seeds from City People’s to try out as cover crops this winter.  The vetch is a viney legume that fixes nitrogen, and the rye is planted with it for support.  I’m hoping that the chickens will like to eat both, and that neither will grow stems too tough to decompose quickly in the compost bin.  Now… if only i could keep Cornelia out of the chicken patch long enough to let the cover crops grow…  she’s so tricksy!  People say chickens aren’t very smart- but she’s clever- and therefore a pain in the ass.

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Tomato-splosion!

It’s 8:30 in the morning and several of the chickens must have just laid eggs- they’re cackling like a bunch of proud, frantic Jokers.  We’ve been delivering little half-cartons of eggs to the neighbors every once in a while to make up for the noise… but jeezus.  I did not know that chickens would be this loud.  I knew that they would crow a little egg song after they laid an egg, but i did not know that they also have an “I’m about to lay an egg!” song, and a “Oh wait, i was wrong before, but now i’m REALLY going to lay an egg!” song, and an embarrassingly early morning “Hey!  Let us out of the run so we can go tear up your grass!” song, which is more an incessant squawk than a song.

The neighbors on either side of us say that the chickens don’t wake them up- so they either get up way earlier than i do, or they sleep like rocks, or they have amazingly insulated windows.  In any case, it’s a good thing we have extra eggs to give away.  It is also a good thing that our tomato plants are literally exploding with ripe tomatoes.  (I do actually mean literally- some burst open when i attempt to pick them.)  Last weekend we picked a humongous basket full of them, gave quart yogurt containers full of them to 6 neighbors and friends, and were still able to fill up all the fruit bowls in the kitchen.   Yesterday (3 days later) i picked another huge basketful and gave another 5 tubs away to coworkers who have been helping me with my experiments, and there remains a large pile of tomatoes on the kitchen counter in addition to a bowlful from last harvest that we haven’t finished yet.  Good grief.

I think this means that i need more indeterminant plants (grow and produce fruit all summer) and fewer determinant plants (produce most of their fruit in a small harvest period).  And then i need to start them earlier, so that they will actually be ripe before August.  I’ve found that, if you are going to start your tomatoes from seed indoors under a grow light without bottom heat (they’ll grow more slowly, but will be heartier), and you’re going to protect them with a cloche or wall-o-waters when you transplant them, you can and should start them way earlier than most regional gardening calendars suggest.  From a combination of NW garden books, i have on my calendar to sow tomato seeds in the last half of February, but i will definitely start them earlier next year.  Hopefully that will get the harvest started earlier so that we are not inundated by tomatoes for a couple weeks surrounded on either side by severe tomato shortages.

Anyways, i’m going to go eat some cherry tomatoes for breakfast.

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A flock of chickens is essentially a pack of little garbage disposal composting machines.  Food and yard waste goes in, fertilizer comes out.  But, they don’t eat everything.  Here’s what we’ve found our chickens like to eat.

First, what goes in each food/yard waste bin?

Chickens get:
fruits and veggies
grains, cooked and raw
bread
leftover meals
dairy (but not too much cheese)
But don’t eat:
citrus fruit and peels (taste bad)
meat, fish (they could, but this increases the chance that pathogens will end up in your fertilizer)
garlic and onion (makes eggs taste funny)
raw potato (poisonous)
dry beans (poisonous)
avocado pits and peels (poisonous)
rotten or moldy food
sweets and junk food
and eggs that look like eggs (they’ll wise up and start eating their own!)

Worms get:
moldy and spoiled food
coffee and tea
paper towels
tough peels
But not:
citrus
meat or fish
greasy, oily stuff

Food waste bin gets:
citrus
meat, bones, fish
greasy, oily stuff
houseplants (can be poisonous)
pits, peels, and egg shells (take forever to break down in compost or worm bin)

That gives you a general idea of what should go where, but chickens do have favorites, and some things that we throw into the run just don’t get eaten.

Favorites:

  • kale and swiss chard and broccoli leaves and other leafy greens.  we grow kale just for them- it’s super nutritious and they absolutely love it.  in fact, if you hold it up above their heads, they will jump almost a foot in the air to grab it.
  • yogurt.  i don’t know why, but they frickin’ love this stuff.  they’ll drink it out of a bowl, but when they were little we had to dip their beaks in it to show them what it was.
  • anything grain like- cooked rice, oatmeal, millet or wheat or barley or flaked corn or scratch mix from the grange- essentially anything that can be shaken out of a jar and pecked up.  they come running immediately.
  • mealy worms from the pet store- fantastic treats for young chicks that you are trying to handle and tame.  they won’t eat earthworms until they’re much bigger- worms are intimidating to little chicks.
  • moths, earthworms, grubs, bugs that click and jump around, etc.  if you want to see ancient dinosaur instinct come out in your chickens- watch them hunt bugs.  it’s actually rather scary.
  • beds of clover (crimson clover cover crop), wheat grass (harder to grow), pea vines (after you’ve eaten the peas), long grass, etc.

Not so much:

  • cabbage- i find i have to chop this up finely for them to eat it- otherwise it’s to tough for them to rip apart.
  • same with bread crusts- they’ll eat the soft inside, but i have to soak the stale crusts in water for them.
  • stems of broccoli, swiss chard, etc- they’re just not as good as the leaves.

Tricks:

  • try to clean out your fridge often- catch leftovers before they go bad so you can give them to the chickens instead of the worms.
  • chickens always eat the best things first, so if you want them to eat chopped broccoli stems, don’t put kale or grain out too.
  • they’ll eat more and less appealing things if their not free ranging.  if i want them to finish some wilted lettuce or chopped cabbage, or eat their weekly dose of crushed egg shell for calcium,  i’ll put it in the run when we leave them in there for the day- that way there’s nothing much better to do, like chase bugs.
  • for tougher stuff like stems, cabbage, and bread crusts, make them a smoothie!  i blend this stuff with yogurt, kefir, or just water and put it out in a bowl for them to drink.

Next spring i plan on trying out buckwheat as a cover crop- it attracts bees and makes more phosphorous available for the next crop- and i’m hoping that the chickens will enjoy eating it.  Gotta keep them well fed and entertained so they don’t destroy the lawn!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Summer garden

The summer garden is finally in full swing.  We have ripe tomatoes!  We have cucumbers!  Fall beets and broccoli have been planted!

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