May 17, 2015

Making a List and Checking It Twice

After living for nearly 40 years in the same house, we are woefully out of practice for moving, or even buying a new one.   The world of real estate has changed drastically in all that time, and so have we.   Were we just young and dumb, back in 1974 (well, yes), and lucky (probably), when we found our first home through a classified ad in the newspaper?  And the owner sold it to us for a song AND carried the contract?  And when we moved into our present house 4 years later, the fact that it was filthy, unloved and battered didn't faze us -- we were young and strong and frisky and enjoyed fixing it up.  And we could afford it -- always a plus.

Now, as two people perilously close to qualifying for the term 'senior citizens', we began our search for a new home with a rather vague list of 'things we want in our next house if we ever do get around to moving someday' that soon crystalized into a very short list of requirements containing several seemingly mutually exclusive items:

1.    New -- when we fell in love with a couple of small houses on the tour, which we could actually afford, we realized we were also in love with the idea of brand new plumbing, up-to-the-minute super energy efficient design and building, new roof, new floor, just ..... new.  

Neither of us has ever lived in a brand new house in our whole lives, and suddenly we craved it. After spending so much time in older houses ourselves, and after much visiting with friends in the UK who live in houses much older,

it felt slightly ...... decadent.   But fun.

2.   Small, but with a living room big enough for a 7 ft grand piano.   You'd be surprised how few houses have that much space -- which I naturally think is odd.   Who doesn't want/need a grand piano in the living room?    Or better yet, two?

Not too surprisingly,  small houses tend to have small living rooms, and houses with big living rooms tend to be, well, big.  Bigger than we wanted, anyway.   This requirement reduced the number of available choices by a good percentage.  Still, we carried on with our list.

3.   A yard large enough for a modest sized garden.  This is where the requirements really start crashing into each other.  Most new houses being built in our town take up every square foot of land legally allowed by the city building codes -- 5 feet on each side, I think, and what yard there is, is mostly in the front.  Most new houses seem to butt right up against the back of the lot, with another house just beyond the fence.

Not for me -- I need a decent-sized space in the front, and room for a real garden in the back.   I'm not going to quit gardening, I just want a modest place in which to grow some tomatoes and flowers.  Putter.  Throw dirt around.  With bambi-proof fencing.

The number of houses that met our requirements just shrank to almost zero.

4.    Single story.   Although I grew up in a single story house, I always fantasized about living in a two-story house, like I saw in books and movies.   Child of California that I was, I thought they were romantic and old-fashioned.   Now, though, I see the advantages of not dealing with stairs.   We are still hale and hearty, but I have grown accustomed to the ease of having everything in a two-dimensional plane, and honestly, I don't like the idea of having to install one of those funky stair elevator chairs for old people if we ever get, um, old.

In the interests of finding a place with all of our other requirements, though, we decided we could deal with a second floor if necessary to achieve our other goals.  And most homes, even new ones here, have two stories.   Builders continue to assume their target home buyers are young couples with families.   We know they are behind the times -- there is an emerging cohort of buyers who are Boomers, doing just what we are doing:  downsizing, simplifying and looking for single story homes.

5.   And probably the most important factor overall, we want to stay on the west side of town, where we have lived all of our 41 years in this town.  Unfortunately, so does everyone else.   It is the 'cool' part of town, for everyone from young hipsters to yuppies to wealthy retirees from L.A. and elsewhere.

Houses in this area are relatively much more expensive than anywhere else in town.  So our modest home buying dollars will not go as far here as we would like.   Plus there are relatively few new houses.  This is the original residential area and since our town is relatively young, that means the bulk of the older houses are early 1900's Craftsman-style bungalows.  I love the word 'bungalow', don't you?   But these houses are mostly small and of course, being over 100 years old, thus don't qualify for our 'new construction' goal.

So we had our list, and we started looking at a few -- very few -- houses after the home tour.  Most had only two or at most three of our required elements.   All along, we had a couple of options in our back pocket:  two small houses we had looked at on the tour that seemed doable.   By the end of the summer, they were looking more and more like our only options, other than staying put.

Meanwhile, the gardener was panicking -- I can't leave this garden!   I've put my heart and soul into it.   I have grown up in it -- as a gardener and as a person.  It is full of beloved plant friends, and plants given to me by beloved human friends.  My Arrowleaf Balsamroot plants that I started from seed 8 years ago might be going to bloom this year for the first time...... all the native perennial flowers I planted in the 'desert woods' section three years ago are going to start looking big and impressive this year ......... my amazingly fertile and loamy soil, hand-built over 40 years of composting .... my mature fruit trees .... my greenhouse!!! ... my roses!!!

In short, despite my authentic enthusiasm for the move on one level, in my deepest, darkest, most fertile earth goddess soul, I was a wreck.   

May 13, 2015

What the ------- ???!!!

What the heck just happened to11 months?  I'll tell you what happened.  Arabella's Garden had a terrific shock, and the gardener has been paralyzed into inaction, i.e. silence on the blogging front.  Wherefore art thou now, Arabella?

In reality, Arabella herself, my grandmother, split the scene long ago.  But my garden, named in her honor, is still here, only now ... in transition.

Looking back I see that my last post was June 29 of last year.  Right after I wrote that, baby chicks started hatching and I spent the next 48 hours scrunched down in the coop, watching mamas and babies do their thing.

All that bending over did my back in, and by the time I was walking upright again, Fate had Intervened, and you know how that goes.  You can't argue with Fate.

Fate, in the form of a perfectly innocuous decision to check out a few houses on the annual Tour of Homes, put on by the local builders' association each summer.  Mostly dedicated to showing off the kind of ridiculously humongous, bloated McMansions beloved of real estate agents everywhere, each year there are always two or three 'normal' homes, and my sweetheart and I like to check these out, for future reference.  'Future' defined as 'let's think about downsizing sometime in the next 5-10 years'.

Call us boring, but we have lived in this house and neighborhood for 38 years.  We are homebodies, and we love our cozy, if unexciting 1950's ranch style house and big, roomy garden.

I love my 500 square foot separate music teaching studio.

But honestly, we don't need this much house -- or yard. After observing various friends, family members and aging parents through the years making decisions -- or lack of decisions -- about housing for the later years in life, we made a vow to be smart and plan realistically.  Not move to a small town with no longtime friends, medical services or social networks, not move onto acreage needing mowing, disking, plowing, weed-whacking or moving irrigation pipe while we are in our 60's, 70's and 80's.  Not move into an old house needing constant repair and maintenance.  And also not stay in a too-large house on a hill with a huge amount of snow shoveling, pine needle raking, weeding, and watering until we were too old and too tired to make a move.

Despite this somewhat vague, long-range plan, no one was more surprised than we were to find a couple of small houses on the tour, that we really liked, and which were in our potential price range.  Just like that -- *SNAP* -- we said "it's time!" and flipped over into Prospective Home Buyer Mode.

And there went the rest of last summer!

Jun 29, 2014

Buk Buk Buk Buk Buk

It seemed pretty straightforward.   Get some chicks at the feed store.  

Procure a feeder, waterer, heat lamp, and a big box to start.  Meanwhile, build a coop.  Move chicks to coop when the time is ripe, watch them grow, and wait for eggs.

It actually worked fairly well, considering I was a complete novice, though well-read.   

There were a few bumps in the road:   Lucy, named after my feisty mom, turned out to be a hell-hen, bully supreme.  Babe, a bantam cochin frizzle, was pecked featherless by one and all, until I gave her away to someone with a big, big barnyard and a whole flock of bantams.   Samantha, my sole Australorp hen, turned out to be Sam.   

But after Betty, my favorite hen

laid the first egg ever, on my birthday

I considered the whole backyard chicken endeavor a huge success.

I learned the value of craiglist, for finding homes for girls that needed to go away for one reason or other.  Larger flocks on farms and ranches outside town have the ability to absorb hens with er, personality defects and slowing production, that small city flocks don't have.   I've learned that space constraints are real, and that managing a small flock for maximum egg production requires some planning.

In my original vision, my flock would include one of as many different breeds as I could get.   This turned out not to be such a smart thing, for a variety of reasons.   First of all, if birds of a feather flock together, that means, for chickens, that everyone gangs up on the ones that look the most different.   Secondly, not all chickens are content to lay eggs.   Some breeds really, really, really want to be mothers.

My first broody hen was poor Maisie, a Dominique

who had already begun her sketchy laying career by becoming egg bound just a month or two after starting to lay, barely surviving to tell the tale.   The following spring, she began parading around with all her feathers fluffed out, her tail stuck up straight behind her like a tom turkey, bukking constantly, like a chicken version of Mrs. Rochester in the attic.   Broody hens are a pain unless you want babies, and with no rooster, and no space for extra chickens, I realized my mistake and passed Maisie on to someone who happily welcomed a prospective mama hen.   

Some breeds are prone to broodiness, and some are not.   Another newbie mistake.   I should have learned my lesson with the Maisie incident, but then I saw some Speckled Sussex hens on a backyard coop tour, and fell in love.  Forgot to check the broodiness factor.   Penny went broody for the first time last fall, just a month after starting to lay.

It took a week to stop that, but of course she started up again a few months ago, just as soon as the first spring days hit.   Grumbling, I put her in an isolation zone with no nest, and after a week her hormones settled down and we were back in the egg laying business.   Predictably, Sassafras, her partner in crime, went broody a month ago

and Penny started again too.   My choices were few:  give it up as a bad choice (i.e. give them away immediately), continue to break their broodiness every few weeks for the rest of the summer, or ......... get some fertile eggs from a local farmer and give the girls a chance to do their thing.

By now they had both taken up residence in one of the two nest boxes, thus forcing the other girls to wait in line for the remaining nest.   

Several days someone couldn't wait (picture chickens with their little knobby chicken knees held desperately together) and I found an egg on the straw under the nest box.   When chickens go broody, they stay that way -- not eating, not drinking, not laying -- until .........  I don't know how long if they're not removed from the nest and deprived of a place to brood.   

So I gave up.   I moved them into the smaller outside enclosure, with their own dedicated nest.   I had to forcibly remove them, as they stayed in the box while I unfastened it from the wall and moved it.  Here's the rear view!

Then I called Mike, the hen expert at my favorite feed store, and ordered a dozen fertile eggs to be picked up the next day.

These are mutt eggs, collected from his large flock, which contains Rhode Island Reds, Ameraucanas, Barred Rocks and more.   Just for fun, I dowsed for sex with my pendulum.  6 males, 6 females?   We'll see how accurate it is.

Then I took them out and stuck them under the broodies, and left them to their work.

A few days ago I realized hatch day was coming right up!   I got some chick feed, and after consulting with Mike, decided the two hens in the one small nest box was probably a bit much.   A good chance babies would get squished.  Against all internet advice, I set up a larger nest box, and moved the eggs, very close to hatching, over to the larger space.   Carefully, carefully, trying not to change their orientation -- babies are in the final stages and apparently need to be stationery the last day or so.

Hmmmm, I could swear I put 12 eggs under those girls.   Why are there only 10?    I suspect one or two got broken in the press and shuffle, and the girls thriftily ate them.   ?????

Sassafras tucks in the last egg

before Penny settles back in for the home stretch.  Notice the intense look of concentration on their faces below.   Not that chickens have a lot of expression, really, but these two have been in The Zone for three weeks now -- not even blinking when I pass my hand in front of their eyes.   Whether or not these eggs hatch, these girls have proven to be dedicated to their task.

Today is Day 21, and so far no babies.   I've read that chicks can be heard peeping while still in the shell, in the last day or so before hatching.   The mamas are still setting patiently this morning, but are cocking their heads -- are they listening to the faint peeps coming from underneath their feathers?    Stay tuned....  

May 1, 2014

May Day comes again

Many excellent things happen on May Day.

World Naked Gardening Day

Oh darn, it's not until Saturday this year.

May pole dances.   May Day baskets of my youth (i.e. sneak out early in the morning, pick flowers from my mom's garden, stick them in the small basket made at school, from construction paper strips woven together,  hang basket on front door knob, ring doorbell, run and hide while she opens the door and pretends to be surprised (and delighted) ... I wonder if kids still do this?

And our wedding anniversary.   My sweetheart and I have been married for 43 years today, together for 45.  

It's been pretty much a swell trip together, the usual ups and downs, but mostly ups.   We are best friends and boon companions.

In addition to being a fun date, pretty much anywhere....

he's also very handy around the house,

fixing things

making pies


or moving pianos.

He fixes bikes,

races bikes,

wins often in his age group

but really just likes bikes!

Loves to camp,


 even in the rain

and play the piano.

He's the best and I'm so happy we found each other, all those years ago

Happy Anniversary, Sweetheart

Apr 28, 2014

Who's in charge here, anyway?

It's time for Action! in the garden -- but time does not always correspond to good weather.   We are coming off of a week of rain showers, cold winds and the odd spring snowflake, but heading into some gorgeousness real soon.   

My morning garden stroll reveals the pear trees in full bloom, their fragrant white glory undoubtedly unappreciated by the chickens, pecking and scratching below.   They will appreciate the dropped fruit in the fall, and the shade will be welcome this summer.    The foliage also hides and protects the girls from the view of hawks overhead.

 Shifting my gaze a little lower, I see the greening up of the controversial raspberry bushes in front of the coop.  

Controversial because they are both prolific (berries:  good) and rambunctious (free-running vines:  bad).   I planted them a few years back as a hedge to divide the back yard into 'rooms', and soon afterwards I got the chickens and they were a good screen for them as well.

But somehow I didn't fully realize how invasive raspberry bushes are, or why garden experts advised that they be planted in containers, or raised beds with deeply buried sides.   I trustingly planted them right in the soil next to a path on either side.   So of course they run everywhere, coming up under my brick paths, in my asparagus patch, my garlic, tomatoes, lettuce....  

Personally I'm not wild about raspberries -- they are ok, but for me, soft and blah compared with other sweeter, tarter berries like strawberries and blueberries.   I can take 'em or leave 'em.   My sweetheart adores raspberries, and I confess I planted them mostly for him.   Here he is, picking breakfast a few summers ago.

Every year I complain about spending precious spring gardening time digging up raspberry runners, and every year he gives me The Sad Look and points out that he never complains about anything I grow (hardly) and that he built the raspberry structure on my request (true).   So every year I grumble more quietly and dig on.

I don't know why, but this year I woke up one day and thought:  Right.  That's it.   I'm taking them out.   Here's why.   The raspberries literally groan with fruit every summer, but the height of the harvest is a time when the chief raspberry eater is gone for weeks at a time, working on bike tours.   I'm all alone with the raspberries, and I can't eat them all, or keep up with them to freeze.   Lame, I know.  So a lot of the crop goes to waste.  Even the chickens can't eat that many.

But I've been harboring an alternative plan and this year I'm putting it into action.  

At the time I decided on a fruit hedge, I was debating between raspberries and blueberries (which I totally love).   In the past 15 years I had tried growing blueberries in various places around the garden, and they never did well.   They basically sat where I planted them, then eventually dwindled down and croaked.   I concluded our climate is too hot and dry for blueberries, so in went the raspberries.

Then I met George Snyder 'deaf blueberry grower' from Culver, Oregon, who sells blueberry plants in pots and claims they are completely winter-hardy, even in Central Oregon.

I was skeptical, but one day I saw a trio of his plants for sale at our local grocery store and when I got home I found they had slipped into my car along with my groceries.  (Yes, I paid for them.)

My skepticism lasted exactly 6 months, until my plants, lined up in front of my greenhouse, not only made it through the winter with no additional protection, but flowered and produced fruit the following summer.  Huh.  Maybe old George was on to something.  Next I dug up the last struggling survivors from my last garden blueberry planting, and put them into the same kind of pots.   They perked up and thrived and, the following year, bloomed and bore fruit.  

I did ask George what kind of potting mix he used, and he set me straight:  straight shredded hemlock bark.   I splurged on some acid-loving soil mix and used it half and half with the bark, and it seemed to do the trick.   In retrospect I realize that my former blueberry failures came from several factors:   too much shade/too much sun + too little water + soil too neutral.   Go figure -- blueberries actually need acid soil, just like all the experts say.   I guess those token handfuls of peat moss sprinkled around the original plants didn't quite cut it?  

Here's my new plan.  Take out the raspberry hedge and move the blueberries into their spot -- with plenty of acidifying soil amendments.  I can't betray the man who built the support structure though, that guy who loves the raspberries, so I have dug up 8 raspberry canes and put them into pots.  

We'll see how they do.   Maybe by the time they are huge and out of control I will have figured out someplace else in the yard to plant them.   The sweetheart will have his raspberries and I will have a blueberry bonanza, with a handy wooden and wire structure to hang bird netting from at harvest time.   I call that win-win.

The morning stroll also took me inside the greenhouse, where I found this

sitting on a potting bench, where it had fallen from the greenhouse roof.   Empty, obviously, left over from last year.   These clever structures are the creations of paper wasps that find the protection of the greenhouse the perfect place to raise their young.   These guys, or rather, ladies, are quite mild-mannered, and so I don't sweep them down unless they are close to the door or other busy spot.

They start out like this

and just last week I saw several new nests going up in different corners of the greenhouse.   Now there is only this

and the fallen giant in the earlier photo.   Where did they go?   Aha -- Several times in the last few days I have startled birds that were hanging around inside the greenhouse.   I suspect they have been feasting on wasps and dismantling the nascent nests.    No need to worry about being stung this year.   Now perhaps I should get the broom and clear away the cobwebs?