Cast and Crew

Monday, November 22, 2010

Is La Niña Code for "Start Baking"?

That's not dandruff, folks. It's been snowing!! And we all know that snow is one of Aengus' favorite snacks. 

We covered the garden with straw just a few short days ago, knowing that cold weather was on the way.

Boy was that good timing! It doesn't snow very often in the Pacific Northwest. Sure, the mountains get covered with it this time of the year, and the ski resorts are always happy when the icy winds begin to blow, but we live extremely close to salt water, so snow is a rare treat for us.

Year-round gardening is usually simple in this region. We currently have one cold frame to see some plants through the winter, but you can see the leeks (in the bed on the left) holding up well even in this sub-freezing weather. The strawberries, just to the right of the leeks and garlic (which has yet to sprout), were still giving us ripe berries only last week. The blueberries (in the foreground) have turned a lovely shade of deep red. There are carrots, turnips, rutabaga, and kohlrabi growing in the uncovered bed, and a few small pots of strawberry runners are in the cold frame bed. Everything else has been put to sleep for the winter.

Straw is a really simple way to cover raised beds and garden space this time of year. It's very inexpensive (usually about $7 per bale), and we use lots of it in the chicken coop anyway, so it's always on hand. I only wish the bales weren't so messy. In the spring, we'll pull all that mulch off the beds and toss it into the paths for extra weed control. It sometimes sprouts a little hay grass when it rains, but it creates a very effective weed barrier.

Is it time to pull out the doggie sweaters, too? We've been baking brownies and making homemade chicken noodle soup all weekend to keep the house toasty warm. It's supposed to drop down into the very low 20's tonight, and it probably won't get above freezing until Wednesday. Here's to hot cocoa and fuzzy wool sweaters!!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dark Meat, Anyone?

You may not know much about Dark Meat (whose real name is Esther, named after the famed synchronized swimmer), but you may be hearing more about her over the coming weeks.

See the resemblance? I thought you might. I can't say that Dark Meat enjoys a good swim, but her feathery toes know no boundaries. She's bold, she's brave, and I even witnessed her giving a hearty peck to Portia just the other day. We worried that she would forever be the scared little chicken in the flock, but she seems to be coming into her own.

The real reason we're all about Dark Meat these days is because....
That's right, folks. The silence of the egg is over. After a month of no hen fruits, Dark Meat has come through as a shining example of urban-egg-laying glory. Her first egg came early on Saturday morning, and the second arrived on Sunday. Who knows? There might be one waiting for us after work today. So far her eggs are a bit on the small side, but we don't judge around here. Their shells are a lovely pale brown with subtle lilac specks. If I hadn't been so keen on breakfast this weekend, I'd have snapped a pic or two.

It's funny how we've come to depend on our ladies for eggs in the course of just one short year. Store bought eggs simply won't do. The shells are too uniform, the yolks are too pale, the flavor is flat, and the characteristic bit of feather fluff or chicken poo is oddly absent. I've missed me some farm eggs.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Happy Anniversary to Us!

Where has the time gone? Really, folks. I mean it. I wake up and it's dark, my train ride to work is dark, the ride home is dark... It's no wonder the hens refuse to lay eggs when the days get shorter. But the specific time I'm referring to today is the year of blogging we've just completed! The first blog post here was on November 7th, 2009, and we've come a long way since those early days. Ready for a trip down memory lane?

Six tiny chicks showed up at the local post office in the late part of summer 2009. It was August, we had just gotten home from a great road trip vacation to Yellowstone NP, Grand Teton NP, and Glacier NP. (This was the vacation where Aimee really got to get in some serious "wheel time" driving the Subaru. I napped in the passenger seat and woke up to find her cruising along at 83 mph in Montana. Yikes!) The coop was nearly finished, and the brooder box was warm and waiting. Portia, Ellen, Raquel, Ursula, Ingrid, and Norma Jean all thrived in those late summer weeks. By December we had our first eggs.

Sadly, we lost one of our chicks in early 2010. Norma Jean, tragically named after Marylin Monroe, died young of an overdose. If only we could have sensed the foreboding in her name. It was a terribly sobering event after such initial success, and it forced us to come to terms with how attached we had become to our little ladies in the backyard.

Bartering eggs around the neighborhood opened up new lines of communication, friendship, and sharing, and we credit the chickens and the garden in the front yard for much of this. One neighbor was so caught up with the beauty of our hens than he asked us to raise a few for him. He built a great little coop and run, and his three chickens are now happy and healthy, and I think they're probably a bit spoiled.

That same batch of chicks brought three new lives into our own flock, though we could never have guessed how much they would teach us or force us to grow over the course of a summer. Winona, the luckiest (or unluckiest) little Wyandotte I have ever known, started out a little slower than her brooder box mates. I dropped a board on her and nearly killed her, but she simply refused to give up. After a few days in isolation under a heat lamp, she rejoined her sisters and has grown up to be pretty close to normal. As it turns out, her inability to prevent getting whacked by me is probably related to her scissor beak condition. To this day, her beak must be clipped regularly, her eyesight leaves a lot to be desired, and she's extremely shy about portait shots with the camera. Though she consistently peck an inch to the left of snacks on the ground, she's a fighter. In other words, she's really darned plump.

Dark Meat is the embodiment of pure joy. I have yet to capture a video of her antics, but believe me that it will be worth the wait when that movie shows up. Perhaps a dedicated post to our funniest chick is in order soon. Neither of the two youngers chickens have started to lay eggs, and this Friday they will be 33 weeks old. They seem to have the support of the toughest chicken union I have ever negotiated with.

Rusty, formerly known as Milla, was the most robust, beautiful, and biggest chick we had ever seen. We remained firmly in denial about his gender until the infamous "borkle" sound I heard one afternoon. We struggled with our decision to slaughter him, and we learned so much about respect and personal limits, none of which were anticipated. Though we have received some criticism about butchering our own animal, it was an important step for the future farm we will someday own. On a personal level, slaughtering an animal I genuinely loved has changed my internal compass for eating, and it has opened my eyes to behaviors and practices I feel I can no longer ignore.

We cut down the massive, very old, and incredibly frail douglas fir in our front yard during the peak of the summer heat. That seemingly simple act has opened up a world of possibility for our small raised bed garden, and we are now looking forward to more work, more harvesting, and more sunlight in our future.

What's to come in the future? If we have learned anything in the last year of urban farming it is that planning is fun, but the farm will make its own decisions with or without our input. Below is a list of hopes, and some of them feel a bit like New Year's resolutions, which is to say that fulfilling or ignoring them are both viable options.

  • Honey bees are the next big goal. We'll be starting out with a single hive in the front yard in the spring, and we hope to learn much about the lives and organization of bees, pollination, listening to the weather, and collecting honey.
  • Meat birds are the next logical step after Rusty. Though this particular item is under some heavy scrutiny at the moment, it will eventually happen in the coming years, even if next year is not good timing.
  • The garden shed will be getting a concrete floor, and we hope to have this completed before the end of 2010. Both it and the garage could use a lot of love and work, but we'll handle that one project at a time. In the meantime, we need a safe place for storage, and we're looking forward to growing more of our garden starts under cover.
  • The reclaimed "acreage" in the front yard needs to be converted into beds and a mini orchard. Building raised beds can be a lot of work, but we've had such great success with those that we already have, and Aimee really wants a place to grow raspberries. I'm hoping to rig one or more of them to accomodate a mini hoop house for tomatoes, cukes, and possibly some other fun veggies.
  • The line of stumps in the backyard is gone, thanks to the fine efforts of the chickens. A second mini orchard may find its home there.
  • Our parking strip is the last vestige of grass (by which I mostly mean weeds and clover) in front of the house. One bed of herbs is already planted, and at least four more are planned. In my mind (as idyllic and ridiculous as it is known to be), I imagine our neighbors casually wandering over to clip oregano and parsley for their dinners in the summer evenings. In reality, I am prepared for more than a little cat poop.
  • Many of the bedding plants around the house are going to be removed and re-homed to make way for rhubarb, berries, and who-knows-what-else. We both agree that the calla lilies are waning, the single mum doesn't get enough light, and the dhalia always gets infested with aphids. It's time for edible permaculture.
Are we too ambitious? Probably, but it's always funny to watch us try. Stay tuned over the next year to see what really gets done. What are your plans for gardens, farms, animals, and such?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Get Out And Vote!

The campaigning has hit its peak. Signs are in yards everywhere, the TV and radio are buzzing with promotional ads and digs at opponents, and some of us have even been visited (repeatedly) by Labor Neighbors. If you have a union job, you've probably heard of this door-to-door process. If you haven't, be thankful. In the spirit of exercising your rights, we encourage you to vote today. A brief review of the key issues is below, and our recommendations are noted.

  • Referendum Cluck - We, the chickens, hereby propose an increase in food, wherein food is defined as any wholesome substance to be deposited in our communal feeder or distrubuted about the floor of the run. Desired natural foodstuffs include such things as fresh berries, cheerios soaked in whole milk, a hot oatmeal breakfast on cold days, and leftover carrot and turnip mash.
Vote for - That raw food stuff is for sissies. We're tired of brussels sprout stalks and crunchy pumpkin innards. Cook it, already. (Sponsored by Real Chickens for Real Food)
Vote against - You're lucky you get anything but chicken feed. (Sponsored by Humans Don't Have Enough Time to Cook For Themselves, and They're Not About To Cook For Birds)

  • Initiative Egg - We, the humans, hereby demand a shift in the molting schedule of the hens. Summertime is hot, which means it is a much better time to shed feathers and regrow. Additionally, our egg demands are greatly reduced from July to August. We propose that this new molting period become effective immediately to help restore critically low funding in egg capital for holiday baking.
Vote for - Really? You stop laying right when we need eggs the most? This union bullying tactic has gone on long enough. You're shivering and we're having to purchase eggs at the store. (Sponsored by The One Person in the Family Who Would Like an Omlette for Breakfast)
Vote against - It's about damn time you realized you need what we work so hard to produce. We hope you enjoy that lifeless, pale yolk you had in your scrambled mess this morning. (Sponsored by Unified Chickens for an Egg Unrestricted Market)

Well, folks, that wraps up our suggestions and comments on this important voting day. Every voice (and cluck) is important, so let your choices be heard. The poll is now open (on the upper right side of this page). Polls close in one week, so vote early and often!


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