Cast and Crew

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Doubling Our Acreage

When we bought our house three years ago, we immediately began making plans for a garden in the front yard. We ripped out grass and weeds, fought with topsoil, built raised beds, and started growing. That first year we had four raised beds. This year we doubled the number of beds and started growing strawberries and blueberries. Our harvests have been abundant, but there's still never enough space to grow everything we want.

Do you see the 85 foot tall douglas fir right in the middle of all the action? The poor thing had been topped twice, and it didn't fit in the space provided anymore. To give you some perspective of just how big this tree was, our house is the tallest in the neighborhood. We have ten foot ceilings and an attic big enough to be a third floor. I'd estimate the top of our house (at the peak of the roof) is probably 55 feet tall... Maybe 60 feet. The branches of the fir tree scraped the gutters and filled them with needles. There were pinecones (fircones?) all over the yard. Last year the tree got an infestation of tent worms. All in all, it was a disaster waiting to happen. We worried that a wind storm would bring down branches into our house or the neighbor's house. We fought the horrid ground cover growing beneath that damned tree. We watched as sun-loving garden plants were hidden in shade through most of the day. Worst of all, the squirrels who lived in the tree routinely planted peanuts in our potato sacks.

Aimee and I had talked about having the tree removed since the day we moved in. I finally made a few calls two weekends ago. Three bids and a week later, Doug Fir is gone. I took Monday off work to supervise from the upstairs window sill (mug of tea in one hand, camera in other hand). The Tree Pirate (I swear, I did not make that part up) strapped on his spiked shoes and started climbing. He cut down branches as he moved higher, and some of the branches had to be roped and wrangled to keep them clear of the house. To their credit, this company did a fantastic job. Believe it or not, they didn't hurt a single raised bed, the fence was barely touched as they tossed branches over, and they cleaned up the neighbor's yard before they left.

Now look at the space! Oh, and the sunlight. You've never seen such light. There's enough room to build another ten or twelve beds in the space that's been cleared. We'll be working on a rough plan over the summer, but I'm hoping we'll have all the beds in place before winter hits.

Do you have any ideas for this space? How about berries or apple trees? What are you growing in your urban or suburban farms?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I Am a Real Farmer

There are few moments in urban life that really make you feel like the rest of the world would acknowledge your aggie abilities. Growing parsnips proved to be one of those moments for me. Let me backtrack to the beginning.

I started out growing cacti and succulents in pots way back when all I had was an apartment window or a tiny balcony. Something special happened when I grew my first pot of tomatoes in one of those apartments, and I haven't stopped looking for places to plant veggies since. I've had a couple of p-patches and a couple of houses, and each time I start a new garden, I stick with safe, predictable plants. Somehow they rarely thrive. Do I not have a green thumb? To be honest, growing vegetables in pots can be difficult. They need frequent watering and fertilizing, and you can't leave them unattended for a long weekend if it's going to be hot. I've seen some people have success with potted veggie gardens, but those folks are smart enough to grow their plants in big tubs. Itty Bitty did a great post about this very subject not so long ago. But growing veggies in the soil, raised be or no, can be tough, too.

What was I doing wrong all those years? Why did some plants outperform others? How come my tomatoes always ended up with blossom end rot? And why don't carrot seeds sprout in real life like they do in magazines?

The answers to those questions fall into two categories. For the sake of readability, I'll split them up into theories.

Theory #1

Gardening is not a single year activity. Whether you grow things in pots, raised beds, hanging baskets, neat little rows, or by the acre, improvement in soil composition will have the biggest impact on your plants' performance. For the first time in my life as a farmer, I am beginning to understand how important caring for my soil really is. Tomatoes need calcium and magnesium. Without these essential minerals, blossom end rot will cover every tomato on every vine. Though the soil in those p-patch plots was wonderful, rich, organic soil, everyone had grown tomatoes in it, and no one had put those minerals back.
Hint: If you raise chickens like we do, you'll have an abundance of egg shells to deal with, and egg shells are a fantastic source of calcium and magnesium. When you throw them in the compost, they take forever to break down. Instead, collect a bunch of shells (I read one account of a guy who kept a big jar by his sink for just that purpose), crush them into smaller pieces, and throw them in the oven to dry out. There's no need to spend time baking egg shells by themselves, just keep them handy and put them in the oven while you're baking other things or while the oven is heating up and cooling down. Once they're totally dry (white egg shells will take on a slightly golden hue), crush them into a chunky powder with a mortar and pestle. Sprinkle this fairy dust around the base of your tomato plants. 

Our chickens have also taught us a lot about compost. I used to compost for fun, but I never had all the browns and greens to make a good, hot pile. Those days are over! Now we always have one batch resting while another is being turned. Sometimes two batches are getting turned at once! Each bin loads up the wheelbarrow about seven times, which is the equivalent of about 15 to 20 cubic feet of finished compost. We use all of that compost in our raised beds and as high-nutrient mulch for the bedding plants around the house. Read more about our composting here.

My point is that gardening doesn't take place in the spring or summer or fall, but it is a year-round entity in need of a lot of attention. Once I started spending a little time caring for our soil, everything began to grow as I had imagined it.

Theory #2

Pick easier plants to grow. How many years did I cry over some exotic plant that didn't survive? Why did I try so hard to grow tomatoes from seed when there are so many great places to buy starts? I make things hard on myself, but I'm learning to change that. By expanding the variety of things I grow into more reliable plants, I'm having more success. I'm also getting to try out veggies I've never eaten before, and it's a lot of fun!

I tried parsnips for the first time a few years ago when Aimee and I were visiting her family in Ireland. Her mother made carrot and parsnip mash. I fell in love. When we came home, I vowed to buy some parsnip seeds and give it my best shot. I was afraid they'd be slow to germinate or prone to split like all the carrots I'd ever grown, but that didn't stop me from planting them. Here's the result.

That's right, folks. I'm a farmer. Check out my parsnips. Each one weighs almost a pound.

As for germinating carrot seeds, I recently read that covering carrot seeds with a board after you water them will help keep the soil moist until those little suckers sprout. Getting carrot seeds to sprout is the real battle, so I'm looking forward to trying out that neat suggestion. After all, if I can grow rockin' parsnips...

Friday, July 16, 2010

Why Did These Chickens Cross the Road?

Yesterday I was interviewed by an magazine editor for a story he's writing about chickens and real estate. While most chickens don't have a high enough credit score to qualify for a home loan, there are important considerations for homeowners to make about keeping chickens in an urban neighborhood.

One of our neighbors was so smitten with the idea of having chickens and fresh eggs from his backyard that we helped him get started with his own flock. He built the coop above in two days flat. Pretty impressive!

Light Meat, whose new name is Dotty, rules the new roost. She's quite a bit larger than her sister, Dark Meat (aka Esther), who lives with us.

Donnie, the neighbor in question, has been very good about keeping his chickens clean, fed, watered, and happy.

To help keep predators from digging under the edges of the chicken run, he laid down some nice paving stones. This also makes a big difference when things get rainy and muddy in the winter,

The left side of the run that you can see above is a little screen door. It's just the right size to slip into the coop and grab an unsuspecting chicken.

Though Donnie's birds are only 15 weeks old, he's already provided them with a nest box. I reminded him that it needs a roof to make it feel safe and enclosed, but he still has a month to get that finished before they start laying eggs.

Look at that nifty roosting pole! Those chickens sure do have a good piece of real estate to enjoy! It's very comforting to see the three chicks we raised by hand being cared for with such compassion. Though Donnie still refers to each of them as "he," there's still room to learn and grow. The two sussex girls I couldn't get a clear picture of are growing like weeds. Both are happy and beautiful, and all three hens are proving to be great breeds for a first time chicken farmer.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Gem of the University District

This is the first in a series of posts about the Puget Sound farmers markets. We visit a few different ones each week depending on what we need, which market has something unique, which day we can scamper off with canvas bags in hand, and where we plan on being that day. You never know which market you'll find us at, but keep your eyes open and say hello if you spot us! To find the farmers market closest to you, or to go on adventures like we do, check out Puget Sound Fresh, Seattle's Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, or Snohomish County Farmers Markets.

The University District Farmers Market is a great chance for people in the city to get to know their growers up close and personal. Located in the parking lot of the University Heights Center for the Community, at the corner of University Way and NE 50th Street, the U District market keeps going year round.The following shots were taken about two weeks ago on a cloudy, very typical Seattle day. That didn't deter the crowds one bit. For anyone concerned about the popularity of farmers markets, look no further!
Tomatoes are finally coming in, so salads don't have to be boring anymore.
Brightly colored swiss chard seems to make everyone smile.
Hothouse cucumbers are likely to jump into your bag before you realize it. They're worth stopping for.
Who doesn't love a towering pyramid of baby carrots? The big carrots won't be in until much later, but these tiny spears of orange brighten up salads and cole slaw with crunch and mild flavor. Have you ever thought about how cheap carrots are in the grocery store? Try growing them at home and you'll quickly see that the effort they require should generate a little more income.
Rainier cherries are everywhere this time of year. Lighter and easier to eat by the dozen, these pacific northwest classics belong in your lunch bag for as long as you can keep them.
While we're not big fans of bing cherries, they sure do add a punch of color you can't ignore.
Tumbling peas and perky broccoli provide plenty of ideas for summer salads, lunches, dinners, and creative quiches. Don't be afraid to try something new. You may just decide you like kohlrabi, celeriac, or rutabagas. If you're wrong, your chickens, compost bin, or worm compsters will help you move on.

Toboton Creek Farm is a great source of boer goat, and their eggs are HUGE!
If you have yet to try goat, stick to something safe and easy. We tried goat bratwurst first, and we fell in love. Four in a pack will set you back $16, but they're absolutely worth every penny. Ask for them early before they sell out.
Berries are everywhere. If you can't make it out to a u-pick farm, be sure to buy them by the half or whole flat at the farmers market. Rinse, slice, add plain yogurt (from a local dairy, of course), sprinkle with granola, and make all your co-workers jealous as you feast after staff meetings. We go through a full flat of berries every week, topped with Grace Harbor Farms' plain yogurt. Our local co-op even stocks some locally produced granolas. Could everyone stop including coconut though? Some of us are allergic.

After watching Aimee drool over those raspberries, I knew they wouldn't last long on the car ride home.
If you haven't started making batches of jams and preserves, the time is ripe! Always be sure to ask local berry farmers if they'll give you a discount for buying lots and lots (like the three half flats we brought home yesterday), or if they have any slightly squished fruit which is still perfect for jam.
We've been blown away by the juices, ciders, wines, and vinegars available from Rockridge Orchards, and you'll be a convert, too. They provide sips of all the juices they sell, and those gorgeous bottles are good for a deposit on your return visit. We're never going back to the soulless vinegars sold in commercial grocery stores now that we've tried their apple cider vinegar.
Have you ordered your heritage turkey for Thanksgiving yet? Jerry and Janelle at Stokesberry Sustainable Farm in Olympia are happy to take your order now. We have a turkey reserved (which requires a small deposit and a smidge of reliability), and we're hoping to convince our extended family to go local for our feast this year.
Olsen Farms is a great place to pick up grass-fed meats. They're extremely helpful and willing to talk about their products, so don't be shy!
Yeah, I know what you're thinking. Grass-fed meat is pricey stuff. Before you turn up your nose at a $15 per pound top sirloin, think about what goes into the beef you consume. Grass-fed animals are happier, healthier, and their meat is better for you. Not only does grass-fed meat provide you with a great supply of omega 3 fatty acids, it also leaves your full belly with that warm, satisfied feeling of doing something right for cows, farmers, and the environment.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Long Live Rusty

Friday night we butchered Rusty. It was very difficult for me. I cried and shook while holding the axe in my hand. I never really knew just how hard it would be, and it left me with a lot of emotional conflict.

Ultimately, this experience was necessary for me, for us as a family, perhaps even for our neighborhood. I don't have any regrets, but I do have a lot of respect. Raising meat birds is a goal I've had in mind for a while now, and Rusty gave me the chance to see if I could really follow through. I don't know the answer to that question just yet, but at least I have a very clear picture of what slaughtering looks and feels like now.

Here are a few of the highlights from our Rusty weekend celebration:

  • Plucking feathers is long, tiring work.
  • When the books all say to deprive your meat chickens of food for 12 to 24 hours, they really mean 30 hours. Ew.
  • A sharp knife would have been a godsend compared to that axe.
  • Chickens don't bleed near as much as I thought.
  • Rusty had some iridescent bluish green feathers. The base of them, in his skin, had this funny bluish dye.
  • Entrails brought out the science geek in both of us.
  • Dogs drool over gizzards, hearts, and livers.
  • Heritage breeds have awesome legs. Really. Wow, Rusty. His little manly breasts weren't shabby either.
  • The flavor of Rusty's meat tasted like.... well... grass from the backyard. It was sweet and tender, and it took the herbed butter well. The barbecue wasn't bad either.
  • We haven't been woken by a ruck-a-roo in three days.


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