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.   http://arabellasgarden.blogspot.com/2011/10/chicken-emergency.html   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?

Apr 19, 2014

Goodbye to Ariel

Yesterday we said goodbye to our amazing cat, Ariel.   All cats are amazing, all cats are unique, all cats are wonderful.   But Ariel was just a little different than your average amazing, unique, wonderful cat.

She was super smart, and she was even more independent than most cats.   She recognized other cats as fellow beings in the home,

and even adopted small waifs when they arrived in her house.

But she was eldest, she was first, and she never quite belonged with the common herd.   She was pretty sure she was one of us -- 'us', as in human, rather than 'them' as in feline.

When she came to us, she was a tiny silvery gray fireball, feisty, hot-tempered, anti-social, and supremely athletic.   Saying 'no' to her was often followed by the sight and feel of tiny claws and teeth digging into one's legs in a full-on angry attack.   A Scots friend who was visiting during Ariel's early months with us was heard to refer to her as 'the little monsterrrrrr'.  Oh, she had a temper.   To be honest, the two of us often clashed in a battle of wills -- both of us bossy, controlling females who didn't like being told what to do (or not being obeyed).

When she wanted to escape the scene, she found a perch out of reach

but in later years was always ready with a cheery greeting, her little special double 'meow-wow', uttered on a friendly, questioning note.

When she eventually mellowed, she occasionally blessed one of the resident humans with a short visit 

to desk or lap.  She never stayed long, but she wanted us to know we were part of the same family.

She loved boxes of course, both large

and small,

and of course Christmas was a favorite time of year!

She loved the game of 'papers on the floor' -- though this winsome pose

was usually followed by frenzied shredding.   Ariel -- no!

She adored shoes and laundry baskets, the smellier, the better

She figured out how to open the French doors

by watching us.   We had to keep it locked from then on, otherwise we risked returning home from an outing in midwinter and finding the living room door standing ajar.  

The other doors had to be opened by us, and she was always ready to go out early in the morning for a wee jaunt around the premises.

In the end, that morning puttering was her undoing.   Wednesday morning she was attacked by two coyotes, new to the neighborhood, and was fighting them off, hard, under a neighbor's window.   The wonderful neighbors scared off the coyotes and took Ariel to the emergency vet, and for a while there it looked like she was going to be alright.   She had surgery Thursday afternoon, and the vet was optimistic Ariel was doing well and would make a full recovery.   She even told us we might be able to bring her home yesterday.   Sadly, though, she didn't make it through the night.   In the wee hours yesterday morning, she gave up the fight and came home to us in a much different way than we had expected.

She was beautiful, she was quirky, she was a friend and she did things her own way.   We miss her and are feeling that double pull of conscience (that we let her outside into a world much larger than a small cat knows) and gratitude for the thirteen years we had with her, knowing she came to us a wildcat and left a happy member of a loving household.