What a little tank!

Amelia survives raccoon attack!

I’ve been lazy lately and don’t always close the coop door at night. This is partly because I forget, and partly because I once forgot to let the ladies out in the morning- they spent the whole day cooped up and I only realized an hour before dark that they hadn’t been out all day!

Anyways- my vigilance has been renewed after this morning’s events. Inka and I awoke to terrified squawking at 3:30am and raced out the back door to chase off the aggressor. In my scramble to grab a flashlight and my glasses, I missed what happened- it appeared that Inka had chased whatever it was off, but whatever it was had dragged Amelia and Agador out of the coop and still had Amelia.

Agador was missing some tail feathers. I put her back in the coop. The run was covered in swaths of Amelia’s grey and white striped feathers, some of them clumped together with what I assume was raccoon slobber. I heard no more clucking, and assuming Amelia was a goner, went back to bed feeling sick to my stomach. Random chicken death (where you find them keeled over in the coop one morning) is one thing, which may or may not be your fault, but terrifying death by sneaky, dexterous paws and sharp little teeth is another thing entirely, and was my fault.

(Conversely, when I did mouse experiments, if a mouse died accidentally I felt terrible, but if I killed it in purpose with good technique, that didn’t feel as bad. But I guess it’s all about suffering: good technique in animal husbandry, slaughter, and animal experiments minimizes suffering, while shitty technique (not locking the coop at night, a poorly aimed bullet, not being able to stick a vein) results in suffering, stress, and nausea for both of you.)

Magically, Amelia reappeared in the morning in the back yard. I was amazed and immediately mixed up some yogurt/cereal/flax seed glop for the ladies for breakfast to celebrate and help them recover from the stress. I didn’t have a clue as to where Amelia spent the rest of the night until I left the house to catch the bus- there were feathers in the front yard, too! She’s missing most of her tail and looks like her head was in someone’s little jaws, but seems ok. I’m hoping she doesn’t die of shock…

Suspected Raccoon: 0
Amelia: 1 (minus lots of feathers)
Sara: Lesson learned.





Christmas in May!

Thanks Aaron and Beth for the lovely greenhouse and Nicole and Isaac for the awesome compost tumbler! There ain’t much we love more than free-cycled stuff!

David managed to assemble the greenhouse in less than a day (he did this in the rain) and our newly acquired seedlings from the Seattle Tilth Edible Plant Sale got to spend the night in the greenhouse instead of the basement. (Usually I like to grow our starts from seed under a grow light, but since we just moved and haven’t set up yet, we decided to take advantage of the plant sale, at which I always spend too much money.)

I’m super excited about the greenhouse. Like, so so so excited. It’s only 6×8 feet, but it has a work bench running the length of each side that triples the grow light space I had in our old basement. There’s plenty of storage room under the benches, or room for drums of water to soak up and moderate heat from the sun. Plus, the greenhouse will allow seedlings to get quite tall before we have to move them outside. I imagine we could keep one or two finicky heirloom tomatoes in there in pots if we can vent it well enough during the heat of the summer, but I’ll mostly use it to start seeds in the winter, spring, and fall.

David and I are both pretty excited about the new composter too- this one is a horizontal rolling barrel that’s both bigger and easier to turn and load/unload than our end-over-end barrel composter. We’ll use this one for chicken manure and bedding, as most of our food scraps already go to the chickens or worm bins.

Whoo hoo!!




A really long post about digging a hole in the backyard.

This past weekend David and I had a few people over for a yard work BBQ party. It was really fun, and we got a lot accomplished!! David and I started working around 9am on Saturday (well, mostly preparing to have people over to help- filling up water pitchers, mixing up lemonade, setting out sunscreen and work gloves, picking up a load of compost from Pacific Topsoil). Friends and family trickled in all day to join in the work, starting with my brother, who is always on time whether you want him to be or not. Dave and Kate brought baked goods for mid-morning snack, we had a sandwich bar for lunch, then around 6pm grilled up some sausage and bratwurst to eat with the carrot-cabbage-radish-broccoli stem sauerkraut I had been tending over he last two weeks, and a fantastic salad made by Chris. It was a great day. Pictures at the end.

We were working on a couple different tasks. We had already removed the sod from the area that will become the garden and now needed to empty several loads of compost there to mix in with the soil. The major project, however, was digging a big hole for a dry well, then moving the garden shed on top of said dry well so that the area where the shed was could become part of the garden, it being the sunny SW corner of the yard. Beth busied herself painting our old wood-frame couches to waterproof them- just in time- and kept me company while David went to load up on gravel and Dave, Eric, and Aaron went to Dave’s mill yard to pick out timbers to make the foundation of the shed. She and I came to two conclusions: that our respective men-folk were wonderful, and that we should hang out together without them more often.

But, back to the dry well- why did we need one? In conjunction with it’s lovely southwesterly slope, our lot is situated such that most of the rain water from our half of the block runs off the street and right between our and our neighbors’ houses (the Italians with the pizza oven who handed us fresh-baked bread over the fence during our work party. Rock.) Our street has no gutter and no storm water drain to prevent this, and when I wrote the city to inquire about possible solutions, I was informed that the city doesn’t have money to rebuild the street and we’d have to take care of it ourselves (which is about what I was expecting).

So, a dry well is essentially the opposite of a regular well- it is a hole filled with rocks or gravel that you channel water into so that it will seep slowly into the ground and disappear. Generally people build them as a way to draw rain water away from their foundations or to improve drainage in swampy low areas of their yard. Usually there is a gravel-lined trench (aka French drain) with or without a drainage pipe leading from the soggy area to the dry well, and the dry well itself may either be a gravel pit or an actual trash can-sized container with holes in it that is half-filled with rocks and then covered with soil and sod. The spaces between the pieces of gravel provide ample room for the water to collect and flow (unlike clay soil) and eventually the water will seep out of the dry well into the surrounding dirt, ideally keeping the whole yard well watered but not soggy.

For our dry well, we dug an 8×10 foot hole, one foot deep and a deeper, trash-can sized hole in the downhill corner. The 8×10 hole served as a level foundation on which to put the shed and the floor of this square hole was graded (magnificently by Dave and Aaron) toward the deeper hole. Amazingly, we hit sand at the bottom of the deep hole after three feet of clay-rich soil- I’m hoping that leading the rain water to this layer of sand will solve all our problems!! We lined the hole with landscape fabric- this prevents dirt from moving in and clogging the gravel- and filled the deep hole with big rocks and the rest with “drain gravel” from Pacific Topsoil. We needed more than we expected- 4 cubic yards was barely enough, plus a few wheelbarrows-full of rocks scavenged from the yard. We dug a short channel from the uphill side of the hole to capture the little stream that forms between our and our neighbors’ house when it rains, then noticed a couple days later that the downspout from our neighbors’ roof is only one foot away on the other side of the fence. We will ask if we can hook their downspout up to our dry well. With street runoff and roof runoff going into this gravel pit instead of the back corner of our yard, and because we have built raised beds, I’m hoping that next spring our SW corner will de-soggify quickly and our veggie garden plantings won’t be delayed. We shall see. If that corner is still swampy next year, we will talk to our two back fence neighbors down the hill (who also have swamp problems) and see if we can jointly dig a French drain (aka gravel trench) through the border of their properties to empty into the storm drain on their street. Except today I walked along their street and there was not a storm drain in sight. Huh.

I had the superb chance to observe our dry well in action (and failing miserably at first) this evening when I got home from work. It was raining quite hard and sure enough, water was racing down between the houses and surging out of the neighbor’s downspout. The backside of the shed/gravel pit quickly became a river, and I realized that the landscape fabric, though water permeable, couldn’t handle this much water at once and was keeping most of it out of the dry well. I dunked my arms into foot-deep water at the shed foundation and cut two holes in the fabric- one under the uphill corner at the base of the channel we had dug leading to the pit- I propped the fabric open with a hollowed yogurt container and the pooled water drained instantly- and one midway down the shed where the neighbor’s downspout stream was hitting- which also drained the stream instantly. Needless to say I felt like an action hero while doing this. Sadly, by this time the paths in the garden past the shed had already filled with water. I noticed that water was actually flowing out from under the shed on the downhill side as if the well had already filled and wasn’t draining quickly enough. I was a bit dismayed… but it was raining awfully hard. Were I to build this over again, I wouldn’t have lined the very bottom of the deep hole with landscape fabric, just the walls and floor of the bigger 8×10 hole. I don’t quite have a plan for limiting the amount of sediment that flows in at the entry points… but Aaron, a trained geologist, swears it will take a long time to clog that big gravel pit with sediment. Amazingly, 15 minutes after the rain stopped, the puddle in the gravel had disappeared- the water had drained. The true test will be whether the raised beds dry out quickly.

New house, soggy yard

First, the exciting news- David and I finally bought a house after about a year of increasingly intense searching. It’s down in Highland Park in West Seattle and has a big yard that will be perfect for gardening…. once it dries out! Last week’s rains left the downhill side of the lawn a totally soggy mess (the bad news).

The rains might be fine if we already had garden beds set up- I would just start transplants under the grow light and plunk them in the raised beds at three weeks old. Raised beds tend to dry out faster in the spring than in-ground beds, and planting transplants removes the chance of the seeds rotting in the wet soil before they can sprout.

Sadly, as we just acquired the house last week, we need to do a fair amount of work tearing up lawn, bringing in sand and compost, sculpting raised beds, etc before we can start planting, and the yard needs to dry out substantially before we do those things, lest all the digging destroy the soil structure and turn the entire plot to cement.

So… What to do? Wait? But I have asparagus roots coming in the mail from Territorial this week!! Add dry soil on top of the lawn to form garden beds? Hmmm… That doesn’t really solve the drainage problem. We are thinking of digging a big trench in the soggiest area, filling the bottom with gravel and filling in the top with sandy soil, but will the digging create impenetrable walls of dirt cement that worms won’t be able to navigate through? Sigh… If only we had found the house last fall…

I wrote about my family’s Australian shepherd Oscar a few years ago when he developed kidney disease and was no longer strong enough to perform his legendary frisbee-catching leaps. Now I write to say adios, Oscar, and to thank my parents for taking care of him so extraordinarily for so long.

I thought each visit to Boise might be the last time I got to see him and scratch his massive head, but he kept on trucking through a stroke, incontinence, and near-hind end paralysis- playing fetch and leaning in (and then collapsing) for scritches until he could no longer move. For the last couple years, upon coming home for Christmas or summer vacation, we were greeted by Oscar’s eager, increasingly Joker-esque face- the stroke had weakened one side of his body and now his head was permanently cocked to the side with a half-crazed smile. He could only eat and drink out of the right side of his mouth, could only turn right, and often got stuck in corners or amongst the table legs until someone rescued him (much like i imagine a disfunctioning Roomba would, if a Roomba could handle the massive amounts of dog hair present in every house i’ve ever lived in.)

Near the end, his back legs were fairly useless and he supported his increasingly frail frame on his front legs. My parents had covered the tiled kitchen floor (where he had to stay after he became incontinent) with rugs to give him enough traction to get around. Watching him pad around the back yard from my bedroom window, i was reminded of a horse costume worn by two people- the person wearing the head and front legs directs where the body goes- the hind end stumbles along blindly, out of step with the front.

After his stroke, Oscar really enjoyed being outside, even when it was cold and snowing. My parents built him several little forts in the back yard- under a picnic table, under the porch swing- where he could stay dry and warm. He still enjoyed playing fetch even when his body wouldn’t do what he asked, and would still scramble up the back stairs to the lawn when my mom got the frisbees out every day, little poops falling out of his butt on the way up- i guess he had to choose between controlling legs or sphincter!

One benefit to Oscar’s weakness was that it was much easier for my parents to groom him. No longer did my dad have to put him in a headlock between his legs in order to brush his fur or his teeth. He used to snap ferociously when we tried to detangle his fluffy haunches, chomping his nubby canines that were worn down by the time he was one year old. Before we adopted him, he had spent the first year of his life stuck in a barn, gnawing frantically on the wooden door because he wasn’t allowed out to chase the horses. When Oscar was 10 and it was no longer good for him to do agility trials, my mom tried him out herding sheep. He bolted into the pen and began tearing large chunks of wool off of the sheep. The instructor told my mom to bring him back when he was 14. She stuck with frisbees and stuffed toys.

The last time i saw Oscar was this past holiday vacation. We had invited the entire clan of in-laws over for dinner a couple days after Christmas. The younger, non-kid-friendly aussies were in their crates upstairs, Oscar was chillin’ outside, and we had cleared all the rugs from the kitchen so that the many people helping us cook and serve could navigate more easily without tripping. Our niece Leila is quite the mobile toddler now and absolutely loves dogs. She caught a glimpse of Oscar leering through the window from outside and let him into the house. He leaned heavily as we brought him into the kitchen, where he collapsed in a happy heap to be smothered with kisses and hugs from Leila. She cooed and wrapped her tiny arms around his neck, burying her fingers in the large amounts of fur that hid his fragile body, and he seemed unfazed to be kissed between the eyes so many times.

Gawd. What a fantastic, wonderful dog. Just the epitome of a good dog. I hope every person is lucky enough to adopt at least one dog like Oscar, and I hope every Oscar out there finds a good home.

The results on Washington Initiative 522, which would require labeling foods that contain GMOs, are coming in… and it looks like it won’t pass. I voted for the measure, but, as I was admitting to David the other day, not for very nice reasons. I want to put companies that push GM seed and farming out of business. I think the “No” side is right- putting “made with GMOs” labels on produce and processed foods will amount to putting warning labels on them. And while GMO labels may not increase the price of GM food itself, I do think that people would end up spending more money on their grocery bill to buy non-GM food, just like they spend more money to buy fair trade chocolate and coffee, and to avoid clothing and shoes made with child labor (though, Nicholas Kristof says that the only worse thing than being exploited in a sweat shop is not being exploited in a sweat shop- gotta start somewhere.)

So, what do we do if this initiative fails? How do we avoid buying and consuming GM food?

First, why are we avoiding GM food? I would hazard a guess that most people are against GM foods because it is unclear whether consuming them is safe. Because they are relatively new, I don’t think we have enough evidence to say one way or the other. Given that the FDA tends to operate on a innocent-until-proven-guilty platform, waiting until food additives have been shown to cause tumors or brain damage in rats and infertility (or what have you) in humans before banning them from US food, it might be smart for consumers to play it safe and not eat them. But as I argued in an earlier post, the foreign gene inserted into the crop (the one that makes corn cobs have those horribly ugly faces on protestors’ signs) is the least of our worries. On the other hand, there is ample evidence suggesting that agricultural pesticides are bad for us (Round-up ready crops get DOUSED in Round-up) and other critters, and that monocropping (which GM companies like Monsanto brutally push) is bad for the soil, the waterways, the oceans, and our future ability to grow enough food to support ourselves during unpredictable and harsh climate changes. The wave of fear and disgust toward weird monster corn genes may not be enough to get WA I-522 passed, but there are plenty of other reasons to avoid GM foods.

So here are some suggestions for how to do that sans label:

The simplest is to buy organic. USDA organic regulations do not allow GM ingredients in processed food, nor do they allow animals to be fed GM feed (which is where most of the GM crops produced in the US go- animal feed), so consumers can avoid GMOs by buying organic produce, meat, and processed foods like breakfast cereal. Buying organic also has the advantage of avoiding antibiotics used to raise animals, which have contributed to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and have led to lapses in cleanliness in slaughtering and processing procedures. (Logic being, why wash shit off the cow hide when the cow is pumped full of drugs?)

But, organic food is expensive. Is there any way to half-ass it? What are the most important foods to buy organic and which are not so important?

If the goal is to avoid GM ingredients,
1) stay away from conventional meat, dairy, and eggs (as animals are often raised with feed containing GM soy and corn)
2) or buy pasture-raised meat and dairy products (I don’t think they’ve genetically engineered grass yet…)
3) don’t buy conventional baked goods or grain products (GM corn and soy), or processed foods (GM corn syrup and soybean oil)
4) avoid particular products that you know have been genetically engineered, like some apples, sweet corn, and salmon- instead, buy organic and wild-caught versions of those foods.
5) uh… what’s left to eat? Based on this list, pasta, beans, and rice.

If the goal is avoiding pesticides, buy organic based on this list compiled by the Environmental Working Group. Some produce is more heavily sprayed than others. Produce grown by small farms often carries less pesticide residue than produce grown by huge farms. Know that washing your produce won’t get rid of all the pesticide.

Lastly, if you want to avoid GMOs because of the effect farming them has on the environment, on genetic diversity, or on small farms, buying your produce, meat, dairy, and bread at a local farmers market is your best bet. How much extra money are we willing to spend to save the environment, our health, and local businesses? That’s a tricky question. If you come up with a dollar amount appropriate for yourself or your family, spend it at the farmers market!

-I apologize for not citing my sources- it feels wrong… but perhaps when I’m finally finished with my PhD- two weeks till my defense!- I will come back and write about this in a more scientific way…

Very glad to hear about increasing efforts to replace lawns in the SW with more water-friendly landscaping, though it is true, there’s nothing quite like a lawn to nap and play frisbee barefoot on. This is one instance where I support genetic engineering- soft, foot traffic-tolerant, drought-resistant lawns would be fantastic!