Garden Giddy

I try to garden some all year. For example, right now I have a few carrots, onions, chard, and cabbage that are ready to eat. However, the garden looks rather bare. It is not the riot of bright colors that it is in spring and early summer. There are no big pretty flowers, red tomatoes, or high-climbing purple spotted beans. But there will be soon.

Yesterday we ordered most of the seeds we will need this year and then planned out where everything is going to go. Looking at the garden plan makes me so excited!

Garden Plan 2013

We are trying out a few new crops this year: tomatillos, ancho peppers, zapallo del tronco squash, rat tail pod radish, and ground cherries.   There are also several new herbs to try out, but they are not on the garden plan yet because I have not decided on placement.

Every year the garden gets better and more beautiful.  Knowing that soon this garden diagram is going to come alive brightens up these last few weeks of winter.

Losing Livestock

Dealing with the death of something you care about is always hard. When something dies of old age or illiness, it hurts. There is still sadness and anger. When you can honestly say the death was not your fault then there is no shame. But when the death is your fault, the healing process is really hard.
I lost two chickens about two weeks ago. Not old chickens or sick chickens, but healthy eight-month old hens. And their death was my fault.
When you get pets or livestock you make a commitment to take care of them, protect them, and treat them with compassion. I loved these chickens and took good care of them, except I did not keep them safe.
At night they sleep in a henhouse, up on a roost. A ramp from the hen house goes out into a run that they can’t get out of. I thought the run was secure, so I stopped locking them into the hen house all the way each night. I locked up the run, but I left the door into the run open. Over the time they have lived outside this happened several times. A few times we forgot, but they were OK. So after a while we stopped closing it all together. And it was always OK.
Until it wasn’t. Some animal climbed a tree down on to the top of the hen house and found a way in.
When the first chicken went missing, I did not realize what had happened. There was no body, no feathers. She was just gone. I figured she might have gotten locked out when I let them free range the night before. She was a very broody hen and it was possible she made a nest under a bush. So I spent two days searching for her. I looked under everything, and went into neighbors’ yards. I even wandered around calling her name. She was my favorite chicken, Speckles. She was the sweetest when she was a baby. I would hold her in my hand and she would fall asleep. She was the most beautiful, most friendly, and had the most trusting nature.
I could not deal with the idea that she was dead. She must just be lost and I would find her. So it never dawned on me that something was able to get in the hen house. Two days after Speckles disappeared I went outside to find feathers everywhere.
I can’t describe what that felt like. In one moment I realized Speckles was dead, another chicken was dead, and that both deaths were my fault. I cried, I screamed. I wanted to find the animal who did it and kill it. I want to punch something. But what I wanted more than anything else was to go back in time and fulfill the commitment I had made to these animals.
Goldie was the second one dead. She was the warrior princess of our chickens. She scared my two twenty-pound cats when they came out with me for a visit. She once ate a snake. She took on a rooster role with the other chickens, looking after them. I think she did that the night she died.

The feathers were everywhere — in the henhouse, in the run, even outside the run. She tried to fight whatever got in, but she could not manage it. And it was not her job. It was my job to keep her safe, and I failed.
The run is secure now. We lock them up tight every night. I have had trouble sleeping every night since then, listening all night long in case they need me. And every morning starts with fear. Will I find five chickens this morning? Or four and a pile of feathers?
I don’t know how to deal with that. Sometimes I still think they might just be lost. But it is a lie my mind tells me when my shame is too much.

An Eggcellent Chicken

Sorry, I had to go with the pun; please forgive me.

Yesterday we got our first egg!   We knew it was going to happen soon because Snow, the leghorn, was starting to show signs of being ready.  She does not like to be petted, but for the last week or so, every time we got near her she would get into the hunched-down chicken mating position instead of running away.

Yesterday we heard lots of noise from the hen house, so we ran out to check on them.  When we got to the hen house we found a tiny white egg.  Snow is the only one of our chickens who will lay white eggs.   Leghorns are prolific layers; at their prime they can lay about an egg a day.   And our Snow is living up to the hype; she laid another egg today about 30% bigger than yesterday.

We got her on February 3 at about 3 days old, so she is just over 4 months old now. It is hard to believe that the little chick that was just the size of an egg then is laying her own eggs now.

Chicken Pictures!

Chicken? What chicken? No chickens here.

You have not heard about or seen my chickens in about a month.  I know that hurts you and I want that hurting to stop.  The doctor recommends chickens pictures.

Let’s see…what should I tell you?

They are still very cute, sweet and fun to play with.  As they get older they don’t like being held as much.  I can still pick them all up but they run from me if they can.  Unless I have treats.

Their personalities are strong.  Snow is flighty and paranoid. Betty is always looking for an adventure.  Goldie is protective.  Peeps is calm and low key about things.  Attila is high energy and plays aggressively.  Speckles is reserved.  Audrey is a little less adventurous then Betty, and the easiest to pet or catch.

They have a run now.  It is about 120 square feet, mostly in shade.  I am not going to post any pictures of all of it right now, because I am still working on making it pretty.   Right now it is safe and functional, but unpleasant looking. I have started painting it and adding things to make it more homey.

I would also like them to have more to forage in there, but I have not figure out how to do that.  If I put down seeds for pasture they will eat the seeds before they are plants.  Maybe a container garden of chicken pasture, that I can bring in and take away as needed? 

Having a run does not mean they are locking in all day.  I am doing a sort of hybrid of penned and free range.  I let them out to run all over the back yard a few hours a day.  They love running around time.  It gives them a chance to forage and play.  The back yard is pretty unmanicured at present so there are tons of interesting things for them. Like plies of leaves to scratch around in, lots of plants to sample, bugs to find and bushes to sleep under.   They love the weed three-seed mercury, which I have in abundance.   They also love food plants, especially artichokes.  Betty does this thing where she tried to stand on the artichoke leaves, then she jumps up and down breaking the leaf.   I don’t know what that is all about.

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Their super growth rate has slowed down.  I no longer look at them and say “Wow, you are 10% bigger today than yesterday”.  They are filling out and their combs are coming in.  They look almost like full grown chickens now.   In a few months they should start laying eggs.

They can’t get enough cheerios. If they can get to the container the cheerios are in they will knock it over and peck at it.  Oh, I can’t forget tomatoes.  They do this weird thing with tomatoes, but no other food.  I call it “tomato chase”.  On of them will pick up the hunk of tomato in her beak and then run around making a high pitched tweeting noise while the other chase her.  Then one of them will catch the first chicken and steal the tomato right out of her beak and then that one runs.  By the time they finally get to eat the tomato it is a mushed dust covered mess.  But they are happy and that is all that matters.  I am actually going to plant a bed of cherry tomatoes in front of their run so they can pick off the fruit to play whenever they want.

They have figured out roosting.  They put themselves up there every night now and mostly don’t sleep on top of each other.

I love my chickens and I am really glad I got them.  Having them has been a bit of work, but the daily chicken theater more than makes up for it. I have a few video of them running around that I should post someplace.  Chickens are so funny, I find myself laughing out loud a them everyday.   If you have never just sat around and watched chicken I highly recommend it.

 

Garden Update

It officially became spring a few days ago, but my garden had decided it was spring weeks ago. This is the best garden I have ever had this early in the year. I love that I am able to be home right now so that I can work on it everyday. I have so many pictures that I want to share with you that instead of doing a standard post I have made a gallery with captions. You can look at them all at once like you are now or you can click on the first one and use the arrows to see them all.

I can’t explain the joy I get from my garden. It is sort of like feeling proud and powerful, because my years of research, experimentation and manual labor is what you see here. I plan it, plant it and care for it. So just like my stories this 1 acre piece of land is a reality I created, it is about as close as I get to art. If I had done nothing it would just be a plain yard full of scratchy yellowish grass.

I also feel sort of in awe and little when I look at it, because the seeds and elements really do most of the work. Seeds are freaking amazing. The way a little tiny uninteresting thing can grow into food or beautiful flowers. If you have never gardened you really should give it a try. Just a few pots on the patio and you will see what I am talking about. I will refrain form getting all spiritual here. :-)

My garden makes me feel this weird urge to share too. I am not much of a people person and there are many things in my life that I get great pleasure from that I don’t want other people to join me in. I like to dance alone and read great books without a book club. I sometimes write things I don’t want anyone to read, I knit for myself, hoop for myself and now I even sing for myself. I guess the way I used to feel about singing is the thing most like the sharing feeling I get in my garden. When I feel this huge surge of ecstatic joy I want other people to feel it too. This feeling is much to good for me to keep all to myself.

I also feel peace. Very few actives are as calming as sitting in the sun surrounded by my garden. I am thinking of building a yoga area between the house and the garden beds. There is plenty of room, but I don’t know if my neighbors could handle yet another weird thing from me right now.

Homesteading Food Challenge 2

This past Friday we did our second homesteading/community meal.   Our friend Erik joined us.  Having a guest made it more fun and also gave use an extra ingredients- eggs.  Erik keeps four chickens, so he brought lots of eggs.  Have so many eggs a quiche seemed like the logical choice for dinner.

The Ingredients:

Salad with herb olive oil dressing:

  • Mixed Lettuce (garden),
  • Carrots (garden)
  • Herbs (garden)
  • Olive Oil (Exempt)

Quiche:

Pie Crust:

  • Flour (single store bought ingredient)
  • butter (exempt)
  • water (tap)
  • salt (exempt)

Filling:

  • Eggs (Gift from Erik)
  • Swiss Chard (garden)
  • Onion (garden)
  • Broccoli (garden)
Drink:
  • Water (Tap)
  • Orange Mint (Garden)
Dessert-Pie crust baked with honey:
  • Pie crust (see above)
  • Honey (Gift, from step father)
  • Strawberry Preserves (Local, picked and processed by us)

We all had a lovely evening planning, cooking and eating our meal.  We listening to music, talked about our week and our thoughts.   We also talking about things we wanted to plant, future meals and friends to invite.   Not sure what we are going to eat next week, but I am sure it will be just as much fun to harvest and make.

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Homesteading/Community Food Experiment

We have decided to start a new food challenge.  For one meal a week, we will have a meal of food that we grow or food that I can legitimately say comes from our “people”.

I guess I need to describe this idea first.  I don’t live in an actual community.  I live in a neighborhood, and I give food to my neighbors when they come over to see what crazy thing I am doing.  Last night I let neighborhood kids pet my chickens and I gave them each a carrot.  It is always Halloween at my house. But we are not a community.  I don’t help them with their tasks. They don’t bring me food or offer to help with my tasks.  I don’t know most of their names.  I try to interact like I did yesterday.  But it is sort of hard because we don’t have much in common, most of them don’t want to interact, and I have social interaction issues.

But there is a small group of people who I consider my community.  Close friends that I care about, who I would be happy to help with planting, harvesting or burying the body.   Most of these people are in the Atlanta area, but not all of them.

So here are the rules:

Baseline – All of the major components of the meal have to be from our yard or be grown, raised, or made by people we are friends with.

Examples:

-Anything that is growing in our yard right now.

-Any of our own harvest we have preserved.  We have pickles, dried cowpeas, sunflower seeds, and dried beans.

-Pork from Issa (http://lovelivegrow.com/) and Joshua.  We ordered a pig from them. It will be several months before this part gets added in.  Any other food we buy from actual friends is good too.  I need to make friends with someone who has a milk cow. :-)

-The eggs our chickens will make, or eggs given to us by a friend.  *cough, cough..Erik*

-Herbs in our yard

-A simple thing a friend grows, processes, or makes and then GIVES to us (not like buying the pork, it has to be a gift).  This could be a loaf of bread –even if it has more outside ingredients than we would be allowed ourselves.   I am trying to simulate what it would be like to be mostly self sufficient in a community.   People in that community could give us things that we don’t have the ability to create.   But this can’t be something like a friend brings us a whole meal, or taking us out to dinner.  It has to be a reasonable farming community item.  Something they could have grown or made themselves.  Examples could be bread, muffins, wine, mead, meats they cured themselves, foods they have grown or raised.

Exceptions:

-Salt. We have no ability to create our own salt.  I guess we could go to the ocean and try to figure it out.  But for now salt from the store is allowed.  I am thinking I will only use salt Lori gave me for Yule, as that would fit with the idea more.

-Oils. At present we don’t grow any oil crops.  We could, and I plan to in the future. But for now olive oil, butter, coconut oil, etc. are all allowed.

-Things we harvested and preserved from local sources.   We have strawberry and blueberry jam from fruit we picked ourselves but did not grow.  We also have peach salsa, peach chutney and some pie filling. But we can’t just go buy something from a farmer’s market.

-Honey. This one is only for now.  Once we have bees, then we will only be allowed our own honey.  But right now I can use local honey or honey my stepfather gives me (He has bees in middle GA. He is kind of like my people, sort of.)

– In each meal there can be one ingredient that does not fit the rules.  Like I could use chicken broth if I want to make a soup.  Or I could add a store-bought meat to something, or local grits.   Whatever the extra ingredient is, it must be explained.  It also should be as local and/or as cruelty-free as possible.   This is one ingredient, not one item.  So for example I can’t bake my normal bread.  The bread I like to make is flour, butter, yeast, milk, eggs and salt.  So that is three ingredients I don’t have – flour, yeast and milk – four if I have to buy eggs.  But if a friend gave me a starter (like sourdough),  then the only thing I would need would be flour for some breads.

I am going to try to make this meal happen around the same time each week. And then post a picture and explanation of the meal.  Any friend who wants to donate is also invited to eat with us.

 

The world I am hoping to weave here is one where I sit down with friends over a meal wrought with our work.   We laugh, talk, and learn a little about each other.   I want to grow a tighter community with people who are passionate about this. I’ll be grateful for the gifts my friends give me and feel good for what I give them.  Eating together is an ancient and beautiful ritual that has been lost in our fast-paced world.  We have so little connection with where our food comes from and there is so much food.  I remember food meaning more to me when I was a child living in pretty serious poverty in coal country.  The venison my father hunted,our garden, the maple syrup we harvested and made all felt so important.

I’m hoping this fosters a sense of urgency about my homestead.  Sometimes I don’t work as hard as I should. Seeds get in late, weeds grow, and bugs run wild.  Food has been lost because I just left it sitting.  A few sparse meals will help. I also think this will increase my own sense of accomplishment about what I do.  The fact that I think I can do this means I must have confidence in my homesteading.

Chicken Tractor

My chicks have been outside during the day since Saturday.  They love having more space to play, being able to stretch their wings and do their weird hop-fly thing.  They are really enjoying all the new foods.  They have no idea that this is work not play!

They are eating the compost crops I put down a few months ago.  The plan is they will mow down all the crops, killing them but leaving the roots intact to help the soil texture.  While they eat they will poo adding more nutrients, and they will mix everything up with their scratching.  Hopefully they will also eat some insects that I don’t want.

The structure is my own design.  I am very proud of it.  Woodworking is something that has always intimidated me.  It seemed expensive, complicated and scary.  So anytime I have needed something made I have asked Jeff, Erik or other friends help me.   But this time I wanted something done right away and I did not want to wait for anyone else.  So I just did it.  I mostly used scrap wood from the garage, thought I did buy a few 1 x 4s and  1 x 2s.  I only used tools I had (miter saw, screw driver, staple gun and a hammer).   It is not fancy, but it is pretty sturdy and will do the job I needed.  Puck (my husband, the guy in the super man pants) helped me put together some of it, but he knows less about woodwork then I do.  So we both learned new skills.

Of course once they were outside Donnie (the black Maine Coon) had to come out too, so he could keep an eye on them.  When I am outside he sits right beside their pen, and when I am inside he stays in the window looking out at them.  His interest in the chicks is so odd.  Last week the leghorn got out of the pen inside while I was giving them water. She ran away from me and hide behind Donnie.  They have almost no fear of him and he seem to have no urge to eat them.

At night I bring the chicks back inside, because I don’t trust this structure to keep them safe and it is not quite warm enough.  The hen house will be done this week and then they will be out of the house full time.  About 8 weeks from babies to living in their own apartment.  They grow up so fast.

Spring….I think…maybe

In Georgia there is a thin line between the weird unpredictable winter and blistering summer.  It is hard to actually call it a season, because it does not last nearly long enough to get that title.   The weather bounces back and forth across the line for a few months.  This year, January had days that got up to 70 degrees; last year Atlanta (yes, pretty much the whole city) shut down for a week of ice and snow.  I stayed locked up in my house eating french toast for 7 days.   Two weeks ago it got down to 21 degrees; today was the mid to high 70s.   I’ve decided to call it spring and hope for the best.  Granted, two years ago it snowed on the 1st of April, so I can’t guarantee anything.  But I figure I will go ahead and do my spring planting and other activities, because the gain I could receive in terms of harvest greatly outweighs the cost of a few seeds.   If it did frost again, the peach blossoms would die, but I have no power over that.   I think I might cry if that happened; summer tastes like peaches.

I did a lot of planting in the winter this year.  The plan was that hardy plants could go ahead and get started under a leaf cover, and I would be saved having to try to start seeds inside.  I am horrible at indoor seed starting.  Almost all my inside seedlings died last year due to fungus gnats.  A few of the winter plants got so big I harvested and ate them already (cabbages, chard).  But most are still small.   But it is a heck of a head start over where I was last year.

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I spent today removing leaf cover from the carrots and lettuce.  You should know I already did this once.  I was sure 3 weeks ago that while freezing might happen there was no chance it would drop below around 28 degrees.  Lettuce and carrots would have been just fine at 28, but 21 no way!  So I had a mad cat scramble to put the leaves back on.  At least I got the carrots thinned out the first time.  The lettuce got thinned today.  I took all the small plants that were being choked out and moved them to the back of the bed.  I find this method of broadcasting lots of seeds and then moving, eating, or composting the smaller plants to be much less work than starting seeds one at a time in a flat or pots.   As Scrooge McDuck says, “Work smarter, not harder”.

On some tasks I am really behind.  I only got around to putting compost crops in one bed.  And over the winter I let the weeds get really out of hand.  I spent most of my day weeding, but happily it is almost all done!  That which is left is only about an hour of work that I can do tomorrow.  It was getting dark and we found a snake, so it was time to go inside.

I got one more bed seeded with compost crops, which seems a little silly at this point.  The beds should be for food right now, not rye grass and clover, but the front bed was in really bad shape, so it could use it.   I am only going to let the compost crops grow a few weeks before I let the chickens attack them. I am really interested to see the chickens working in the garden.  I might take them outside tomorrow if I can make a safe enclosure for them.  I hope they enjoy the weeding more than I do.

There is a lot of work to be done over the next few weeks; ordering seeds, planting, hopefully getting time to build a few beds in the back yard.   This is the time of year that is all work and almost no harvest, aside from the never-ending salad (oh, that reminds me, I need to plant radishes tomorrow).

 However, I did have a nice little surprise in the front bed.  I found a wee lucky potato.  

Chicken Babies – First few weeks

I have been wanting chickens for years.  They are cute, good garden worker and they will give me eggs.  I have not gotten them before now for several reason but the big one is them not actually being legal here.   The people I have talked to in the government swear that is going to change this year.  But they have been saying it for years already.  So by getting chickens I am taking a risk.  Lot of people have them, everyone (government people and people who have them) says it should be ok, but it might not be.  If a neighbor complains I could loose them or get fined or something.  But part of getting the law changed is making it more commonplace for people to have them, so I have decided to go for it.

Playing Dead

I got my chicken in two groups, one week apart.  The first group was from Chattanooga.  It was a long drive and they did not bring the birds I wanted most (Americanas), which is why I had to get a second batch.  For the first few days they would just fall asleep randomly and fall over. Chicks are sort of delicate, so the first few times they did this I was afraid they were sick. But I figured out pretty quick that they were just sleepy.   The breeds of the group from Jan 28 are two Barred Rocks and two Buff Orpingtons.   One of each is for my friend Erik when they are big enough to live outside.  If I can bear to part with them.   I love my chicken babies.

The next Friday I got another three chicks from a nice guy in Austel.   He only sold them if you bought at least three.  I have no idea why that is.  I got the the two Americanas I wanted and I also got a Leghorn.He had a few types to choose from but the leghorn was least like all the others I have.  She will be my only white egg layer, and my only white bird.  Leghorns are not as docile as the other breeds, sometimes they are insane.

When I put the groups together I was afraid there would be fighting, but it only took about 20 minutes for them to be a happy flock.  All seven do everything together now, I think there might only be one brain between all of them when it comes to some things.  I guess that is why they are called a flock.  The Americanas seem to be the smartest, the leghorn the most aggressive. 



Having chickens is lots of fun so far.  They mostly hate me and scream every time I touch them, but they will eat out of my hand if I stay pretty still. They are confused about freckles (which I have lots of) so they have pecked at them until I have bleed a few times.  I hope they don’t get a taste for human. I don’t want to be found dead in the back yard some day killed by chickens.

Right now they are all between 3 weeks and 1 month old.  I am amazed at how much they have grown and changed in such a short time. The biggest Buff is almost compeletly feathered now, and the others are not far behind.   I have a hen house for them but it needs some work (it was a children’s play house) but no closed in run area yet.  At the rate they are growing they will be ready to go outside in less than a month.