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Archive for the ‘Chickens’ Category

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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Compost is exciting.  The act of composting takes care of food scraps and yard waste so they don’t end up in the land fill.  And using compost in the garden delivers much needed organic matter and nutrients to the soil.  Composting closes the loop, bringing your garden, be it containers on the patio and a worm bin or a full blown hobby farm, closer to sustainability.

Here’s how composting goes down in my garden, which consists of a few raised beds on a small city lot:

Kitchen scraps get sorted into bins 1) for the chickens 2) for the worms 3) for non-edible food waste (bones, pits, citrus rinds) taken to Cedar Grove composting.

For our yard waste,  cut grass and fallen leaves go into the chicken coop as bedding that will get scratched apart and pooped on.  Weeds like morning glory (the bane of my existence- it cannot be killed!!!) and shotweed go into the yard waste bin so that they don’t end up sprouting in the garden.

The chicken bedding (w/ torn up leaves, grass, veggie scraps, and chicken poop) gets put into a compost tumbler every couple months.  The nitrogen rich chicken manure heats up the material and helps it compost really quickly (so does the black barrel).  We spin the barrel on most days to aerate it, which helps the material decompose aerobically, instead of anaerobically (a process that produces methane gas, which is 30 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas… which is why we don’t want this stuff buried in a landfill).  When that’s done, it gets put directly onto the garden beds.  One potential problem with this is that we use pine shavings for bedding inside the coop, which can take a while to break down, and if put into the garden unfinished, actually take nitrogen from the soil to help them decompose.  This may be compensated by the super high nitrogen content of the chicken poop.  But once our bag of pine shavings is used up, we’re switching to timothy hay, which breaks down more quickly.  We use it as the bedding in the run, and it works pretty well- by the time we rake it out of the run to put in the tumbler, it’s 1/3 broken down already.

Worm bin.   We have a food scraps worm bin, and a dog poo worm bin.  Vermicompost from the food scrap bin goes into the garden when it’s finished, and the dog poo vermicompost will be used on our non-edible plants- an assortment of woefully neglected flowers and shrubs in the front yard.  Why a dog poo worm bin?  Never would have ventured in that direction, except that Inka loves to clean up after our chickens.  (Maybe that’s why she doesn’t hunt them- they have developed a symbiotic relationship; they provide her with delicious snacks, she protects them from would be predators, which, so far, just include the cat and friends’ dogs that come over.  We’re hoping she’d protect them from raccoons as well.)  Anyway, Inka is stealing the lawn fertilizer that the chickens provide, so i decided to reclaim it (and reduce dog waste going to the landfill) with a dog poo worm bin.  However, now that’s it’s been a few months since we got the chickens, the delightful novelty of chicken poop seems to have worn off, and Inka does not eat as much.  So….  we might not continue with this bin, unless it makes such fantastic compost that we can’t not continue.  We are saving more organic matter from going to the landfill… but it’s still gross.

With all of these avenues of composting, you’d think we’d be a streamlined operation here, but the compost doesn’t seem to come fast enough.  Half of our garden beds are in dire need of an infusion of organic matter, and by the time we have a few batches finished to feed them, the other half will be at that point.  We also don’t have a good sunny location to put our compost tumbler; the sun’s heat would make it go more quickly.  So we end up putting partially finished compost on the garden beds.  This releases readily available nutrients to the veggies, but finished compost contains nutrients in forms that are slower to break down and therefore are released to the plants over time- good for long term feeding and to avoid nutrient leaching.

We also never seem to have enough room or containers for all of the material we want to compost.  We’ve got four people total living in our house and producing food waste.  David and i have built worm bins one after another to hold everything coming out of our kitchen- we’ll soon be at number four- and the worms don’t seem to be munching quite fast enough.  Now that the chickens are full grown, they should be able to help us out with a good portion of the food scraps.  Someday we’ll find a balance… perhaps when we move to a place with a bigger yard with space for a real compost pile or another couple of tumblers… and more chickens… and a couple goats.

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Wednesday night David and I went to a neighborhood gathering up the street that turned out to be a “block watch” meeting.  There were appetizers, stories of crazy neighbors that had since moved away, a bit of gossip, and much chatter about the neighborhood raccoons and possum(s).  There are at least two raccoons that live around here- they both have thin and scraggly short tails and wrastle each other on people’s front lawns in broad daylight.  And i’ve seen one possum.  First time i saw it, it had a horrible limp and i thought it wouldn’t last long.  Then several months later i saw it again, still with a slight limp.  Glad it survived, but that’s one more critter to add to the list of potential chicken manglers.

Anyhow, several hours after the neighborhood watch gathering, i was heading down into the basement to get ready for bed and heard scrabbling near the recycling bin.  I peeked around the box and let out a fairly horrified “Oh my god!”  There was what appeared to be a humongous rat clinging to the handle of a milk jug with it’s back to me.  But the fur was a bit wispier, white at the tips, and the ears were huge.  Upon getting a side view, i realized it was a baby possum and squealed a much more excited “Oh my god!!!”

We figure he must have come in through the cat door.  With some prodding, David got the little guy to get in a box and carried him over to the empty lot across the street.  Upon release he clung to the wall underneath the ivy and peaked out with very cute eyes.  See reconstruction below:

Fast forward to last night, when David and I are making pizza with housemate John and friend Lindsay.  I see Tilly jump in through the window carrying none other than Wednesday’s rescued baby possum.  I yell at her.  David yells at her.  She drops the possum, who is curled on the floor, breathing heavily and grimacing with a lot of very ugly teeth.  Everyone’s sad and we think about how many times we’ve tried to save rats or birds that Tilly has brought in- they all end up dead in whatever little box we’ve fixed up for them with water and peanut butter.  But, we decide we can’t just give up on a possum, so into a box with some cat food and up on the closet shelf he goes.  Maybe he’s just playing dead!  We joke about how, maybe, if we were successful in saving this possum’s life, he could very well come back to eat our chickens one day.

Of course we forget to check on him until tonight, and of course the box is empty when David looks in him.  I’m hoping he found his way down from the shelf and out the cat door again…  but he could be hiding in the sleeve of a coat or in a shoe, biding his time until the house is quiet and he can raid the cereal boxes or pet food.  We’ll see.  He’s not big enough to hurt the chickens yet, and maybe he’ll at least keep the rats out.

 

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Yeggs!

Our chickens started laying eggs about three weeks ago. I had almost forgotten that’s what they were for, they’re so fun to have around just eating garden scraps and making manure compost. Chicken TV is highly entertaining. First there were some leathery turtle-esque eggs that we found broken on the coop floor. Then one day there was a solid, smooth, real egg, medium brown and almost as big as a store bought egg. Then David discovered Cornelia in the hay outside the run, nesting down, and he attempted to bring her to the egg laying box in the coop to teach her where to lay her eggs. But, as with a small puppy, things often come out too early, and the egg plopped out onto David’s leg mid-transport and landed safely in the run.  It worked though- the eggs all show up in the egg boxes now.  We ate those two eggs for breakfast… or whatever meal it was right after we found them. In the next couple of days, there came a tiny pale creamy brown egg, and a tiny light brown egg.  Hilariously small. With shells that were difficult to break.

                          

Over the weeks the eggs have gotten bigger- the biggest are now equivalent to large store bought eggs, and the smaller are… still adorably small, but getting there. We can’t tell whose egg is whose, but we know that the golden and black star (Cornelia and Agnes), the Plymouth barred rock (Amelia), and the buff orpington (pearl) are all laying.  In the last 3 days a blueish-greenish-greyish egg has appeared, most likely from Mabel, the golden brown ameraucana.  They go into this funny mating pose when we reach for them now, instead of squawking and running away. I’ll have to get a picture of it one of these days.

Because there are many hours of sunlight during the summer, we’re getting 4 or 5 eggs every day now, which is crazy! We’ve given some to our closest neighbors (who have to deal with the most egg songs (loud cackling pre- and post-egg laying)), took some to a brunch at which everyone got one small fried egg, and have a list of people we’d like to give more to.  I’m also hoping to trade some for fresh berries or fruit or homemade jam from other people’s backyards.  I might send an email to my work bulletin board about that… “Have fresh eggs from backyard chickens.  Will trade for backyard fruit, esp. raspberries, peaches, and figs.” I’ve apparently already earned myself a reputation for being eco-friendly hippie nature girl with my notebooks made of one-sided paper, dirt constantly under my fingernails despite the millions of times i wash my hands in lab, and my eclectic bike commuting outfits from the thrift store.

Point being, we have eggs now, and many of them.  Whoo hoo!

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Realized that i haven’t actually written any posts about my garden, though i intended this to be an “urban farm” blog.  Will have to remedy that.  To start, here is a tour of my garden this summer:

First, many of my veggies get started in the basement under the grow light. Here are some kale and squash seedlings.  Starting seeds indoors takes a bit of electricity, but helps delicate seedlings establish themselves, helps your garden get started earlier in the season, and gives the veggies currently in the garden a few more weeks to grow before they are replaced by new transplants.  Seeding indoors is a great garden time and space saver.

Our original garden consists of three 4×8′ raised beds and one 2×12′ strip along the fence in the corner of the lawn.  This spring we have peas along the fence, beets and chard in one raised bed, brassicas in the second, and peppers and basil in the third.

The peas (Cascadia snap peas from Territorial) are still pumping out delicious pods; hopefully i won’t have to cut them off early when it comes time to replace them with fall broccoli and cabbage transplants mid-August.

In bed one, i made the mistake of not replacing the over-wintered swiss chard plants with new transplants as soon as it was warm enough.  We harvested from the plants all through last fall and winter, and they did continue to produce this spring, but bolted soon after the weather warmed up.  I cut as much as i could before the plants could flower and their leaves turn bitter, and shared it with several neighbors.  But then i had no transplants to replace them with!  Now, in July, the new plants are finally big enough to take leaves from.  Whoops.  Lesson learned.

In bed two, I transplanted two successions of broccoli and cabbage seedlings: the first has been eaten (by us or the chickens, depending on the amount of slug damage), and the second is taking too long.  Early in the season, i sowed radishes between the bigger broccoli and cabbage plants (as per Steve Solomon) because they are so quick to mature they don’t bother their slow growing neighbors.  Now it is time to replant this bed with rutabaga and parsnip…  which i again seeded between the rows of nearly mature broccoli, hoping that the timing will work out.  One thing i am learning in this garden is patience and slow-down-itute.  Cramming too much into the garden plan results in disappointment.

Into bed three went my home-grown pepper seedlings, two extra tomato seedlings that i couldn’t bring myself to toss out, and several basil plants from the Seattle Tilth plant sale.  This bed was covered with a plastic cloche to keep it warm, but several hot days- and me forgetting to open the ends of the cloche- fried the peppers.  I feel i have failed David, the main eater of hot peppers, but next year i’ll get those whiny little biatches to perform by starting them earlier and protecting them with wall-o-waters when they are first transplanted.  This year i have all but given up on them and have filled the spaces in between with more basil seedlings from the apocalypse room.

When we first moved in, there were two flower beds along the west side of the house growing ginormous irises.  Those promptly became veggie garden space as well.  The smaller patch is growing kale this year, which will mostly be split between our housemate Kate and the chickens, both of whom love kale more than life itself.  In the larger bed, i’ve grown runner beans along the house for the last two years.  If you have never had runner beans, you MUST. GROW. RUNNER BEANS!  They are the most amazing thing ever- huge pods that are slightly fuzzy and oh-so-beany.  They don’t get tough and stringy as they get even more huge.  The vines can grow to 10 feet tall and have beautious cascades of red flowers.  If you try them, you will never grow bush beans again.  The rest of this bed is growing successions of lettuce and spinach, and we have a mojito patch under the hose faucet, because that’s where mint likes to grow.

One afternoon last spring i tore out a 4×12″ patch of grass to make another garden bed, much to David’s surprise.  I just couldn’t help myself!  Or as Daniel would say, “No one was there to stop me!”  Into that bed went squash, followed by crimson clover over the winter, which was eaten by the chickens this spring.  Now the bed is a teeming mass of tomato vines.  Intent on getting a boat-load of tomatoes this year, i started the transplants out in wall-o-waters (some home grown and some from the Seattle Tilth plant sale), and then when the plants were too big, covered the bed with a plastic cloche that was open at both ends.  The plants did not fry and the air was still warm enough under the tunnel to grow huge tomato plants.  Now i just need to fertilize them with some phosphorous to get them a-fruiting.  (Nitrogen fertilizer induces leafy growth; phosphorous fertilizer encourages fruit setting.)  We had one ripe tomato already- a good sized Oregon Spring.  We gave it to our neighbor Becky, as per the Murray-Munger tradition of racing your neighbors to produce the first ripe tomato and then giving it away.

This year we built one more 4×12′ bed out in the parking strip (gawd that’s crappy soil) and filled it with 8 zucchini, yellow squash, and green and lemon cucumber plants.  I started the seeds indoors in cow pots and protected the transplants with the wall-o-waters that had just come off the tomatoes.  I think we could start the plants a little earlier next year- some of our neighbors have giant squash plants already, and ours are kind of puny… but they have little baby squashlets on them!

And that’s what we’ve got in the garden this spring and summer.  Fall/cover crop update to come soon.

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