Thursday, June 10, 2010

Chicken Dreaming

I dreamed about the chickens last night. In the fragment I remembered as I awoke, I was holding them in my arms, feeling their soft silky feathers against my skin – just briefly. Then they fluttered away and through a pop door that led somewhere I couldn’t see. (It wasn’t the pop door to their coop.) And they were gone.

I sold the remaining two chickens shortly after Batgirl died. We got an offer on our house from the very first guy who toured it at our very first (and only) open house. So I knew I had to find new homes for the chickens. (We’ll be staying at an apartment while we plan and build our next home.) For some reason, it seemed easier to do after Batgirl died. Kind of like ripping the rest of the band-aid off quickly.

Their departure has left a hole in my life. I had them for just a year plus a few weeks, but they managed to thoroughly integrate themselves into my daily routine. First thing in the morning, I’d look out my bedroom window while I was pulling on my jeans to see what they were up to. Then I’d bring them their morning greens and fresh water.

Now there are no little chickens to greet me enthusiastically in the morning. Nothing to see when I look out the window, except a big wound in the garden where their coop (now sold) once stood. No real motivation for digging the big dandelions that emerged after all the rain last week out of the lawn – because there is nobody to get excited about them and gobble them down voraciously. When I step out the back door to snip a few herbs for cooking, no little birdies start squawking and banging their beaks on the wire of their cage, hoping to be let out. No eggs to collect and marvel over. “How many today?” we’d ask each other. We had five dozen in the fridge when they went away.

I miss them, but I hope they’re enjoying a better life – meaning more space – in their new home. At least that’s what the guy who bought them promised.

The photo above is a good representation of what I imagined having chickens would be like. They’d be an attractive garden feature, wandering through the yard, their gorgeous feathers contrasting beautifully with the foliage and flowers of the garden. They’d not only produce eggs for us to eat and manure for the garden, they’d be living “lawn ornaments”.

Of course, the reality is that they would tear up the garden in a heartbeat if I let them run free. They’d eat what I didn’t want them to eat, dig huge holes all over the place, and drop their uncomposted manure everywhere.

I took that photo of Amelia a few days after Batgirl died. I was tending the remaining chickens, but distracted by thoughts of Batgirl. In my absentmindedness, I failed to close the door to the pen all the way when I came in, and Amelia quickly ran out. It took me more than an hour to catch her, but truthfully, I wasn’t trying very hard that whole time. I was observing her and snapping a few photos. My fantasy had been that, shortly before we moved out of this house, I would fling open the door to their pen and let them all run free in the garden for a day.

Long-time readers of this blog will recall that
I have struggled with the problem of having to keep the chickens penned and wanting to give them the space and freedom all living creatures seek. Our goal at our new place is to have enough land to give them just that; to allocate a large area for them to run outside, chase bugs, dig worms, eat what foliage they desire, and generally live the good chicken life.

So while I miss my chickens, I try to imagine them enjoying a life in the country, and look forward to giving our next chickens the same benefits after we move. It’s hard, however, not just to give up the chickens, but to leave the garden. I thought it would take much longer to sell the house, that I’d have one last summer to enjoy what’s shaping up to be our best garden yet.

Already we have harvested pounds and pounds of strawberries. They’re larger than the ones I grew a couple of years ago in the planter boxes and much juicier and more flavorful than the ones you buy in the grocery store. So far, I have canned seven jars of jam, 4 jars of strawberry syrup, and Rick has frozen two quarts of whole berries. Plus we have eaten many and given some away. Last evening he came in with that half peck box overflowing with yet more strawberries – and they’re still coming! All from an $8 package of strawberry roots I bought last spring.

The sweet potatoes I over-wintered survived and transplanted well, the potatoes are going gang-busters, and the tomatoes I started from seed in the house are my biggest and strongest seedlings yet. But I have to look to the future – to having more space for both chickens and garden, as well as a more energy-efficient home.

My last post for this blog will be up early next week. In it, I’ll detail the reasons why I feel it so important for all of us to get going on growing more of our own food. I’m taking my time with it because I want to provide plenty of links to other articles. I’ve been steeped in this stuff for six years, but some of the issues may be new to some people. So I want them to be able to read more about it if they’re interested. Look for the post on Monday or Tuesday.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Farewell, Batgirl!

Batgirl - around 3 weeks old

Batgirl (Barred Rock in background) last summer

My very favorite chicken died yesterday. I was stunned; am still stunned. She showed no signs of ill health and was frisky that morning. When I went out to give them their morning greens and fresh water, she pecked at my jeans like she often does so I would pick her up. She only tolerates a few seconds of petting; then she wants to be free. But she seems to want just that little bit of attention.

When I went out in the afternoon, she was lying on her side in the pen, beak tucked into her breast. The other two were hanging out in the side pen, as far away from the corpse as they could get. I couldn’t even go into the pen. I ran back to the house calling for Rick. He checked her and confirmed what I knew; she was definitely dead; stiff as a board. My neighbor who grew up on a farm suggested it was the sudden heat that did her in. After a spell of cooler-than-usual spring weather, it suddenly got hot, with a high of 88 frickin’ degrees yesterday.

I guess I didn’t think carefully enough about how to protect them in these conditions. There are trees on either side of their pen, so they get lots of shade and had plenty of water. But apparently that wasn’t enough. Today I’ve been supplying the remaining two with ice-filled plastic containers they can cool off next to, ice in their waterer, and tomatoes and cucumber. Hopefully, all of that will keep them reasonably cool and hydrated.

Batgirl was the first chicken to ever touch my heart; heck, the first animal to do so. At 52 years old, I never had any pet or livestock before these chickens. How do they cluck their way into your heart? I don’t know; she just did.

Things I loved about Batgirl (in no particular order):

• I loved how she always tried to escape and be free. She’s a major reason I want to move somewhere with more land. I want to give my chickens lots more space to roam and play. Batgirl was our best escape artist – sneaking under netting, flying over it, nimbly flitting past me when I opened the door to their tractor or pen. I silently cheered her every time she made it through.

• I loved how when she escaped by flying over the temporary netting I’d put up in the yard, she’d come over to where I was working in the garden and stay next to me, scratching in the soil alongside me.

• I loved how she was always the bravest and first to try anything new. Like when she was just a couple weeks old and we put a low roost in the brooder. She investigated the new item immediately, hopped up on it, and tried to walk along it like a balance beam. She looked like a little toddler, unsteady on her feet and was adorable when she fell off.

Or when we started taking the 5 week old chicks outside. We’d put a smaller box with chicken wire over the top and a drop down door cut into it inside their brooder and try to get them to walk in. Then we’d close the door and carry them outside in the box. While the others resisted walking into that box, she’d brazenly march right in. Of course, she crapped immediately and panicked when we shut the door, but once we got her outside, she had a great time.

• I loved her independence. Although she didn’t stray too far from the group, she liked to keep a little distance between herself and the other hens. She was happy off doing something else by herself.

• I loved how she would pout when something didn’t go her way. She’d turn her back on you and take a few hops in the opposite direction. Sometimes she’d even turn back, look at you again, and take a couple more hops. Just to make sure you got the message. She stayed mad at Rick for about a week in winter when, against her will, he put bag balm on her comb to prevent frostbite. She really hated that indignity.

• Her latest funny thing: whenever I’d transfer them from pen to tractor, she wouldn’t go. The other two would run obediently from one place to the next, but she’d just stand there, looking at me and making some kind of mewling sound. It’s hard to describe – it wasn’t the clucking sound they make when they’re contentedly digging. But there she’d wait, at the door of the pen, for me to pick her up, pet her once or twice, which was all she could take, and then put her in the tractor. Why she had to have me physically move her, I do not know. I guess she just wanted a little attention.

Unlike the other hens, she really seemed like she wanted to interact somehow, if just for a few moments. The first time she pecked at my clothes, I freaked out for a second. Then I realized she wasn’t being aggressive, and maybe just wanted attention. In winter, when I’d give them their greens in the morning, she’d peck at my coat pocket, wanting me to bring out the little bag of cracked corn she knew I’d have. Unlike the others, she loved that corn more than greens (and they all love their greens). Other times, she’d just peck at my jeans a couple of times. When I’d turn to her, she seemed to look right at me, like she wanted to communicate.

Probably I’m imagining it, or reading too much into her little chicken behaviors. But I feel that somewhere in there a little spark connected her little chicken soul to mine. Farewell, little Batgirl. I miss you so much.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Catching Up

We’ve been so busy preparing the house to go on the market that I’ve neglected this blog. I really miss it, too. I enjoy writing it, but also think I need it for my mental health! I even sleep better when I’m writing regularly. But we’re done with the hard labor, having our first open house on Sunday, and I’ve got a backlog of ideas for posts. The first is a quick “catching up” entry.

Happy Hatch Day!
I meant to do a special post for the chickens’ first hatch day, and somehow let it slip by! I got them as day-old chicks on May 12th last year, so as far as I can tell, they were hatched on May 11th. What an interesting year it’s been. I’ve gone from being someone who never had or wanted any pet or livestock, who was a bigger “chicken” even than the chickens, easily spooked by their sudden movements and fearful of picking them up, to someone entirely comfortable handling them and fairly knowledgeable about their care.

I planned to experiment with putting up videos using one of them as baby chicks and one I just took the other day. However, I can’t find the baby chicks video. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure I deleted it one day out of embarrassment. I was talking away to the little chicks on it. Now I’ve really gone over to the other side and don’t care what people think about me talking to the chickens.

So here is a still photo of the baby chicks, followed by a video taken a few days ago of the girls all grown up. (The photo was taken when we still had the ten chicks. When they were two weeks old, I gave six away because we’re only allowed to have four in the city.)

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Current state of the Garden

Look at these cherries – aren’t they gorgeous!!! I’m lucky they’re still so beautifully healthy. According to the books, I should have sprayed by now. But my preferred fruit tree pest control product, Surround (kaolin clay) isn’t locally available. I called everywhere I could think of and most didn’t even know what it is. One sales person, assuming I didn’t understand what I was asking for, patiently explained that they didn’t carry it because customers didn’t like the look of it! Isn’t that the American way – style over substance? It’s true that covering your lovely trees with a fine mist of white clay is less visually appealing than glossy green leaves, but hey, I’d rather do that than eat chemical pesticides.

The only way to get it is to order it online, and it’s clay – it’s heavy - the shipping costs almost as much as the product. The smallest quantity I could get was 25 pounds, which will last years and years with just a small number of trees. But I took a deep gulp and finally ordered some because before we move, I really, REALLY want to taste at least a few cherries off those trees we have worked so hard to nurture. We should probably go all out and have some champagne with those cherries – they’re going to be the most expensive ones we’ve ever eaten!

The strawberry plants are loaded with fruit, as are the blueberries, and the raspberries are covered with flower buds. Tonight I’m planting out my tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, cilantro, parsley, basil, and eggplant. I’ll put up some photos afterwards.

The “It’s for Everyone” Argument and Social Control
The other night I was flipping channels before going to sleep and found the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest playing on TCM. Of course, I had to stay up late and watch it all the way through. It’s an amazing film. On one level, it’s about institutional control over individuals and crushing the human spirit. Jack Nicholson’s character, Randle McMurphy, opts for a mental institution to get himself out of a hard labor prison sentence. But he finds himself in a new kind of prison.

Anyway, the incident relevant to this post occurs when rebel McMurphy politely asks during group therapy session whether the work schedule might be changed to allow the men to watch a World Series game. Nurse Ratched explains in her calm, controlled, and steely manner, that a lot of thought is put into the schedule, that changing it may be upsetting to some patients. The schedule, like the constant anesthetizing music, she says, is for all the men on the ward. But she offers a vote on the matter, confident that the men are too cowed by her to side with McMurphy.

The vote fails, but on a subsequent day, Cheswick, who voted with McMurphy, asks for another vote. Irritated, Ratched reminds Cheswick that they had a vote. Cheswick presses the issue, pointing out that there is another game on today. Ratched allows the vote; this time all the men vote with a jubilant McMurphy.

Ratched looks around the group at calmly before telling McMurphy, “I see only 9 votes. There are 18 men on this ward.” The other nine she refers to are too out of it to even participate in the group therapy sessions or understand that a vote is taking place. They orbit around the dayroom, lost in their own worlds. McMurphy later complains to the doctors that Nurse Ratched “likes a rigged game.”

I woke up the next morning thinking about how the argument that the schedule could not be changed because it was for everyone was like the argument that we can not have a community garden in the park because the park is for everyone. It’s an argument that seems, on the surface, like ethically based opposition to changes in the system. We are looking out for everyone. You are asking for changes that will only benefit you. Don’t you see how unreasonable and selfish that is? Democratic rituals and phrases are used to uphold the system and enforce control. You are the crazy one, if you don’t see and appreciate the fairness and rationality of the system. I’m still thinking through the full implications of the analogy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

It Takes a Community

Yesterday I wrote my report on the neighborhood garden survey. I’d been putting it off – I’m not sure why. Maybe because it represents closure for me. Once I had it finished, it was like a great weight had been lifted – and not just because I had one more task off my desk. It’s the weight that is lifted when you make a big decision and are ready to move forward.

For us, that decision is to sell our house and move someplace where we can have a little more land. In some ways it was a difficult decision, especially now that we are finally going to enjoy the fruits of some of our labors. The first cherries are forming on our trees, the blueberry shrubs are covered with blossoms, and our best strawberry crop yet is coming along beautifully.

I never wanted to live out in the country, and wrote a post about that last summer. (You can read it here.) I like living in the city and hoped to emulate the Dervaes family by packing as much edible landscaping into a city lot as possible. When the opportunity arose last winter for an “urban orchard” in our neighborhood, I was thrilled! Here was yet another way to stay in the city, and expand the land available for food crops. Plus, I’d get to meet more of my neighbors.

I’m a believer in the value of community – of looking out for one another, working together, and helping each other in times of need. That was the kind of neighborhood where I grew up, back in Illinois in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The fathers in our neighborhood were skilled blue collar workers. When someone wanted to pour a driveway, the masons among them would lead a group to accomplish the work. When toilets or other plumbing malfunctioned, they’d call on the neighbor behind us, who earned his living at that trade. When anyone had electrical problems, they’d call on my dad, a proud member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

In this way, these blue collar families could afford to keep a wife out of the labor force and maintain attractive homes. It was a multi-ethnic neighborhood, but with a common religion, as most were practicing Catholics. When First Communion or confirmation rites occurred, there were usually a number of children going through the ritual. Mothers in the neighborhood would plan communal celebrations which I mainly remember because of the terrific ethnic food – pasta dishes from the Italian families, next to strudles from German-descended families. It was hard for a kid to get away with anything in that neighborhood. The watchful eyes of many mothers were upon us, and quickly reported our doings!

In 1976, I married a man from a low-income family. (We just celebrated our 34th anniversary!) He joined the Air Force and there we experienced another kind of supportive community. It was the norm in those days, at least among the enlisted, to look out for one another. If somebody’s husband (most of the service members were male) was TDY (temporary duty at another base), neighbors and co-workers would check in on her, to make sure she got help if she needed it. Since we usually lived far from our extended families, when holidays rolled around, especially when we were stationed overseas, we typically planned communal celebrations. Everyone asked around and made sure that single guys had somewhere to go for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

You didn’t have to know people for a long time to benefit from this mutual aid. Since we were a transient community, we’d reach out to one another almost as soon as we met. Rick could strike up a conversation with someone while he was on line to in-process at a new base, and get us invited to a BBQ that week-end. The common bond was military service.

We didn’t go to college until later in life – that’s how we came to be living in this neighborhood of white collar professionals. The neighbors we’ve met seem to be nice people, but are not very involved with one another. They will help if they see a need, like the time I got stuck in snow at the bottom of my driveway, and one of my neighbors helped dig me out. But mostly we don’t interact much – maybe because we don’t need each other as much as did the blue collar workers in the neighborhood where I grew up?

Sociologists have observed that working class people and those from racial-ethnic minority groups build and maintain networks of economic interdependence among neighbors and extended family and that these are essential for their survival and quality of life. Men trading skilled work in the neighborhood where I grew up are a perfect example of that. When one neighbor does electrical work gratis on another neighbor’s house, knowing that he can later call upon that individual to provide free service when he wants to pour a driveway, those neighbors develop a relationship. They need and depend upon one another, and therefore work to build a relationship, in ways that neighbors who are white collar professionals do not.

If say, a judge from our current neighborhood needs electrical work done, he will engage a licensed electrician and pay him for the work. Their relationship ends there. Middle and upper middle class professionals do, of course, develop interdependent social networks, but these are usually focused primarily on their colleagues, rather than their neighbors.

The point I am trying to make in this rambling essay is that I’ve come to believe that you can’t establish a community garden without a community – meaning something more than a group of neighbors, unless a majority of that group of neighbors values a garden. Then community may grow through work on the garden. Many people in relatively affluent neighborhoods appear to have trouble seeing the value of an edible garden. After all, they can just buy whatever it is they need, just as the hypothetical judge in the example above can pay an electrician. He doesn’t need to have a relationship with one and perform a service in return.

If people don’t see the need for a garden, they will oppose change and cling to the status quo. Even reason will not work, as with the woman who opposed an orchard on the (quite valid) grounds that she didn’t want chemical pesticides in the neighborhood, yet clung to that argument and opposition despite assurances from me and others that we shared her concern and planned to use organic pest management.

If I ever doubted my decision to give up on a community garden and move to a place where we could have a little more land of our own and grow a bigger garden, it was dispelled a few days ago when a heated dispute arose over a proposed prairie garden. A resident of our neighborhood stopped by a few weeks ago to drop off his survey. He suggested on his survey and in person establishing a small prairie garden on the green space of one of our cul-de-sacs. Currently, neighbors are using it as a dumping ground for branches and other garden waste. He offered to lead a project to plant a few coneflowers, rudbeckia, a third crabapple tree to join the two already there, and possibly dedicating the garden to a former resident, now deceased.

I thought it a lovely idea and encouraged the few who responded to the survey indicating they wanted a garden to join this neighbor. I offered to help, too, thinking that even if we didn’t get a community garden or orchard, this small project might be a good start. Interestingly, the woman opposed to the orchard also suggested a similar garden on this green space back in the winter. She is one of his neighbors and plans to help him with the project.

If you think such a garden would be uncontroversial, you’d be wrong. Despite the project leader’s polite tone and effort to hear everyone’s concerns, loud opposition has emerged. “STOP!” one woman emailed. “I have a three year old. I am completely opposed to a prairie garden.” She didn’t elaborate on what she saw as the hazards of a few prairie flowers for a pre-schooler.

Another, hiding behind the “I’m just concerned about the children” mantra, angrily wrote:

It is an inane idea to take away a common play area for the kids. I for one will not be chasing kids out of the nice plantings nor will I help maintain the area once the glow wears off.

Since the area in question is essentially a part of my view every time I gaze out a window, I would prefer to
see children playing in the area as opposed to seeing an often barren and browning ornamental "prairie style" garden.

Instead of plantings, maybe the folks interested in improving the appearance of the area who have extra time on their hands would consider weeding and cutting the grass which would improve the appearance of the area while maintaining the circle as a common area for the small children in the neighborhood.

Bear in mind, there are two parks in this neighborhood, and the suggested plantings will not take up all the space on the circle. And, there are other circles with plantings in the city – it’s nothing new.

He also argued that the garden would be a safety hazard, because children could emerge “undetected from plantings” and get hit by a car. Understand that this neighborhood is so quiet, I feel completely safe riding my bike around it without a helmet. And how small would a child have to be to be hidden by a coneflower? A child that small should have adult supervision – which would prevent them being run over by a car.

This person is so vociferous and angry that volunteers are dropping out of the project, saying they no longer want to be involved. If people can get that worked up about a few native plants, I can only imagine what opposition I would face if I pressed on with the community garden idea. And if others will not stand with you, but drop out of projects because of a few angry people, it’s just not worth it. I feel badly for the guy who wanted to establish this garden, but have to admit enjoying a bit of schadenfreude at the anti-orchard lady’s expense. Maybe she will learn something when her own garden project is opposed by people who cannot be reasoned with even when their concerns are addressed.

I hope this post doesn’t sound bitter; I’m not really feeling that way. I was sad and disappointed for a few days, before we made our final decision. But now I’m looking forward to more land, more chickens - honeybees! Room to plant more than one pumpkin and more than one watermelon. It will be an exciting new beginning.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Chicken Pickin's

Is there a way to minimize purchased inputs when it comes to your chickens? Obviously, a backyard is too small to grow grains for their feed. Eventually, I want to learn how to grind and mix my own feed. Many people recommend that. For now, however, I buy them a high quality organic layer feed.

Traditionally, people have supplemented their chickens’ diets with kitchen scraps and leftovers from human dinners, using the chickens, in the words of our extension agent, as “garbage disposals.” I haven’t done much of that, for several reasons. First, I doubt whether, left to their own devices, chickens would make a fire and cook up some grub. It seems to me that it is more natural for them to eat raw food.

Secondly, much of what humans (American humans, anyway) eat these days is not healthy for humans, let alone chickens. We try to eat healthfully most of the time, but we enjoy things like chocolate cake now and then (more often when I was younger and could more easily keep the weight off!) I wouldn’t dream of giving chickens chocolate cake. They’d have to fight me for it, like anyone else, and although at 4’9” tall I’m smaller than most grown people, I’m bigger than a chicken!

Seriously, the white flour and sugar are empty calories, let alone the hazards of the giving chocolate to animals. If you think I’m crazy to even mention chocolate, you should check out the Backyard Chickens message board sometime. I once saw a post asking whether it was okay to give chickens chocolate. Some of the moderators eventually put together a list of safe “chicken treats” in response to all the questions they were getting.

I’m not trying to put down posters on that site. Some terrific people post over there and I don’t know how I would have made it through my first year of chicken keeping without them. Everyone is extraordinarily helpful.

It is also the largest site devoted to backyard flocks that I know of, and so is a great place to get a sense of what’s going in with the trend. The problem I see is that many people want to treat chickens as pets rather than livestock. Even when you start out, as I did, with the intention of treating them as livestock, if you have just a small number of birds, you find yourself naming them and getting attached to them whether you want to or not.

One problem with treating them as pets is the desire to give them “treats.” People want to give their beloved pets foods they (the humans) enjoy. The result is a lot of fat family dogs and cats. Even foods like pasta, unless it is whole grain, can contribute to obesity (as with humans) because it is mostly empty carbohydrates. Our extension agent says many of the chickens kept in backyards are obese and that obesity causes many of the reproductive disorders you see in chickens, such as double-yolked eggs, internal laying, and prolapses.

What I’ve tried to do is observe my chickens and let them educate me about their diet. They have tiny brains, but they are programmed with specific information related to their survival as a species.

What I’ve learned from my chickens is this:

* They do not particularly care for cooked food, even on a cold winter morning. I’ve read and heard from many sources that cooked grains are good for warming up chickens in winter. Mine had no interest in the oatmeal I lovingly prepared for them. I offered it a couple of times, thinking maybe it was just unfamiliar to them. The only time they went for it was when I put diced apple in it. Then they just picked out the apple! I tried making a porridge of their layer mash and hot water, but they didn’t go for that, either.

Unlike many other chickens I’ve read about, mine do not care for pasta. I even offered them the good stuff, whole grain pasta. They nibbled a bit, turned up their beaks, and walked away. The only cooked food I ever got them to eat was popcorn. But they only like it occasionally.

* They are omnivores; consequently, they usually don’t want the same treats over and over. I knew, intellectually, that they are omnivores, but it didn’t really sink in until I tried giving them something they seemed to like more than once. They went crazy for popcorn the first time I gave it to them, so I made it again the next day. They just looked at me, as if to say, “Popcorn, AGAIN? With no movie? What else have you got?”

Similarly, when they were molting in winter, I read that you should give them a little extra protein. Some people give them dog or cat food, but I questioned the quality of that. Then I read about a woman who gave her chickens deer liver when they were molting. Since liver is a high quality protein, and I happened to some pastured turkey livers in the freezer, I offered them liver. They went crazy for it. The next day I brought out more, and they were, “meh.”

* The “never fail” treats they will always go for, no matter how many days in a row or times per day you offer them are greens, bugs, worms, and grubs. Big surprise, huh? These are the foods closest to what their ancestors, Asian jungle fowl, ate in the wild. The great thing is, you can give your chickens their favorite (and most healthful) treats and minimize purchased inputs at the same time! One of their favorite treats is dandelions, which are extraordinarily nutritious (for people and chickens!).

Whenever Batgirl, one of our Barred Rocks, gets away from me, she makes a bee line for the raspberry and strawberry patch. So now I give them leaves from raspberry shoots coming up where I don’t want them, as well as leaves from extra strawberry runners. I’ve also given them extra parsley from the herb bed, volunteer squash shoots coming up in the compost, pea vines after I harvest the peas, and carrot tops. They also love the leaves, flowers, and seeds of sunflowers – the only crop I plant specifically for them.

Last summer when I was moving their tractor to a new spot on the lawn, I happened to pass over an ant hill and they went crazy. So I just left the tractor there, and they had a blast cleaning out the ant hill. The next day I set them over another ant hill and fairly quickly had my yard cleaned of ants.

One of the hard realities I’ve learned about backyard chickens is that you can’t really let them run free – unless you don’t have a garden. Some people fence off their gardens and give their chickens free run of the rest of the yard. But that only works if your garden is limited to one spot in your yard. From my reading, I thought I’d be able to let them run around and take care of any bug problems in my yard. I especially hoped they’d be a big help with the Japanese beetles. In practice, we’ve had pick the beetles off our roses and cherry trees and serve them up to the chickens, who will greedily devour them.

The reason is that chickens will eat many kinds of greens (even the ones you don’t want them to eat) and will dig huge holes in the garden where you don’t want them. For example, a neighbor who lives a few blocks away from me let her chickens run free, for just an hour or so every evening, in her back yard and they quickly decimated all her hostas.

They’ll work their way through your vegetable garden, too. For instance, they’re smart enough to avoid eating tomato leaves, which are harmful to them, but they love tomatoes – and especially enjoy taking a few pecks from each tempting fruit you have hanging on your vines.

Chickens are champion diggers. Apparently convinced they’re going to find something good somewhere in there, they relentlessly dig without rest. One of my neighbors who has no experience of chickens, watched ours in disbelief one afternoon. “What are they looking for?” he asked. “They just won’t stop!”

It’s useful when you want to turn the soil in spring, so I put up temporary netting wherever I want them to dig and let them have at it. Yesterday, when I went to return them to their pen, I noticed that Amelia was outside the temporary netting. She had dug her way free and was busily digging a deep hole under a nearby shrub.

So, the point is that there are plenty of things you can feed your chickens, or allow them access to, that will keep them happy and healthy and will help to minimize your purchased inputs. I’m convinced that a major reason my chickens are so healthy without antibiotics or vitamin supplements, and survived the winter so well, is that I feed them greens twice a day. Greens are nutritional powerhouses – for chickens and people. I’m trying to get more into my diet.

Unfortunately, since they’re backyard chickens, I usually have to serve the greens up to the chickens, rather than let them forage for them on their own. I hang them in suet cages, in part, to keep them busy for awhile pulling them out. Watching them time their movements so they can deftly grasp a green sticking out of a swinging suet cage, I began to think giving them their greens this way, rather than just throwing them on the ground, might also help to keep their reflexes sharp. They don’t get many opportunities to use their quick reflexes since they’re penned up most of the time.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Social Class & Community Gardens

I’ve been trying to get my head around why someone would actively oppose a community garden. I can understand apathy and indifference towards a community garden. Over the past several generations, Americans have become so far removed from their food sources that many can not recognize a common vegetable plant in a garden, let alone know how to grow one. Some vegetables, even after they have matured on a plant, are unrecognizable to some people. I know I’m not the only one who’s had to identify produce in a grocery store so a young checker unfamiliar with the item could ring up the sale.

It’s amazing when you think about it. The most basic skill any living creature teaches its young is how to provide food for itself. That a majority of Americans don’t know how to do that, and further, believe that food production is something that should be out-of-sight and away from where most of us live is . . . I don’t even know how to finish the sentence. It’s just breath-taking when you think about it; I mean, REALLY think about it. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s suicidal.

It’s also elitist. The gap between rich and poor has been growing since the Reagan administration, and the current economy and job market is dismal, so it’s hard for most of us to see ourselves as “wealthy.” Compared to the truly wealthy in this country, most of us are rapidly falling below middle class. But compared to much of the rest of the world, we are wealthy. Historically, it was only the upper classes who could remove themselves from the most fundamental activity of all living creatures - food production. In much of the world today, as was true of our great-grandparents in this country, people who can’t produce at least some of their food themselves will go hungry.

So I do understand apathy and indifference towards community gardens. Food production is an activity many contemporary Americans have had no experience of and no need to learn. But active opposition to others planting a garden in their neighborhood is something I’m still thinking through. It appears to me that opposition is rooted in class bias. I’m also guessing that those who oppose community gardens in their neighborhoods do not recognize their own elitism and would be deeply offended by the accusation.

Consider some of the objections to community gardens.

1) We don’t want pesticides in our neighborhood. When the urban orchard opportunity emerged last December, and I recruited volunteers to qualify our neighborhood for the grant, I received a few emails opposing the idea. (Interestingly, those opposed did not contact me directly. They lodged their concerns with others, who then passed them along to me.) One individual adamantly opposed a public orchard in the neighborhood, in part, because she did not want more “noxious” pesticides in the neighborhood and believed that fruit production could not be done without spraying. Chemical pesticides were also a
concern when a few residents in the Sycamore Hills neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio attempted to organize a community garden.

My first reaction to my neighbor’s objection was: fair enough. I emailed her to explain (as the Sycamore Hills community garden organizer did with her neighbors) that our group agreed with her stance on chemical pesticides and planned to use organic methods of pest control. When I later conducted a survey of our neighborhood, the same neighbor reiterated her objection about pesticides and continued:

[An orchard is] labor intense (sic) requiring pruning and spraying . . . And for how many years can we sustain a volunteer crew? Without them we’ll be dealing with decaying fruit and bees (which we don’t want to eliminate). Fortunately for us, we have two farmers’ markets within walking distance where we can buy and enjoy a great variety of local fruits and even nuts.

Let’s unpack the layers of meaning in this remarkable statement. First of all, she either isn’t listening or doesn’t believe that fruits and vegetables can be produced organically. She also doubts (perhaps not unreasonably) that volunteer interest in growing our own food can be maintained. More importantly, the statement implies that the messiness, labor, and hazards of food production should occur elsewhere, with others undertaking the manual labor and
health risks of pesticide exposure.

2) Vegetable gardens detract from the beauty of the landscape, especially during unproductive seasons.
One (of the very few) respondents to our survey objected to a community garden, in part, because “vegetable and flower gardens on a large scale (emphasis in original) can be attractive for the few months they are in production but are a visual blight the remainder of the year.”

In Atlanta, U.S. Congressman David Scott and more than a dozen of his neighbors blocked a proposed community garden at Inman Park – across the street from Scott’s mansion - because it would spoil their view.

During a heated town meeting in Maplewood, New Jersey, one opponent of a proposed community garden in Orchard Park expressed a related sentiment when he commented that “it was his understanding community gardens were used to improve abandoned properties or deteriorated areas—which is not the case with Orchard Park.”

Here we have another version of the idea that food production is an ugly business, best done out-of-sight of the non-laboring classes. However, if the gardens are located in poor neighborhoods afflicted with urban blight, then those hideous fruits and vegetables can be an improvement.

One wonders what some of these objectors want to look at in the parks – just lawn and trees? Shrubs? My own neighbor (cited above) didn’t even want flowers because they are a “visual blight” when they aren’t blooming!

It’s worth recalling here that lawns originated in Europe as a symbol of social class. They indicated that their owners were so wealthy, they could afford to keep great swaths of land out of food production and pay people to maintain the closely cropped turf (since mechanized mowing machines had yet to be invented.)

3) The land in this public space should be for everyone, not just the few growing gardens. As
I wrote in an earlier post, this was the argument our neighborhood association board used a couple of years ago to block the city from moving an existing community garden to a new location in our neighborhood. In January, when the president of the neighborhood association got wind of a meeting I was organizing to start a community garden or public orchard, he reiterated that argument. Although he repeatedly claimed that he was “not against” community gardens, he stated that “the whole park should be used by all neighbors and not just a select few.” Maplewood, New Jersey opponents of a community garden in Orchard Park voiced similar objections:

"It's not fair for a small number of people to determine the use of the space," said St. Lawrence Avenue resident Maura Sackett.

"My kids play there on a daily basis," said Chris Coreschi of Headley Place, as he noted that the raised beds would remove open space.

As I argued in my earlier post, this objection is illogical. There are plenty of facilities at parks that not everyone uses – like the softball pitch that only softball teams use or the playground that only children use. A community garden need not be any different. The only way this objection makes any sense is if one assumes that the garden will commandeer the entire park, rather than be allotted a portion of the space, as with a softball pitch or tennis court. So why make such a statement? Perhaps because asserting the right of the whole community to the use of public space has the ring of egalitarianism?

Even when the proposed garden will not be located in a park, residents have been known to vociferously object. In Shelton, Connecticut, organizers attempted to locate a community garden on a former farm, “bought by the city for $2 million in 2002 with the idea that the public would have access to the open space.” Angry residents insisted that a garden would increase vehicle trips by 500-600 per week on their quiet cul-de-sac. In fact, similarly situated gardens in Connecticut do not create that level of traffic and the planned garden would have provided parking on the farm rather than the cul-de-sac.

Residents would not be mollified, however. They put up posters, signed petitions, and packed the Board of Alders meeting to make their objections known. Interestingly, their concerns included vandalism and “security at the gardens.” A flyer circulated prior to the meeting called upon residents to “stop the madness” and “be there to defend your home.” This sounds to me like fear of outsiders, perhaps even fear that low-income people, interested in growing some food, might set foot in the neighborhood. (As of April 19th, opponents of the garden had successfully stalled the project, as the garden committee still awaited a decision from the mayor.)

There are legitimate concerns about community gardens in neighborhoods, including, but not limited to, pesticides, traffic, and how the site will be run to ensure that negligent gardeners don’t allow it to become an eyesore. It should also be expected, given the woeful ignorance of many contemporary Americans about food production that some residents will not understand some aspects of gardening; for instance, that properly managed compost does not smell or create unwanted pests. But when honest attempts to address these concerns are met with obstinance, irrational assertions, and cries to “defend your home,” it’s clear that something else is going on. As far as I can tell, it’s a social class issue.

What do you think? Do you have any community garden organizing experiences to share?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Blueberry Blossoms

Edited to add: I can't believe I forgot to mention coffee grounds! They're a great source of nitrogen AND they help acidify the soil - so a perfect soil amendment for blueberries. I only learned this late last summer, so just recently started using coffee grounds. If you don't drink coffee yourself, you can usually get free used coffee grounds from places like Starbucks. They give them away for compost. Another way to minimize your purchased inputs.

Aren’t these gorgeous? I am soooo looking forward to harvesting our first crop of blueberries this year. We planted two Dwarf Northblue (one pictured above) and one Northland (a “half-high” cultivar developed from a cross between a high bush and low bush blueberry) in the spring of 2008. The Northblue was developed at the University of Minnesota and the Northland at the University of Michigan, so they are hardy enough to withstand our Wisconsin winters. (You need two cultivars for good pollination.)

According to the labels that came with the shrubs, the Northland will grow to be about 3-4 feet tall and, when mature, will produce about 20 pounds of medium to small fruit. The two Northblue are smaller; when mature, they’ll be about 20-30 inches tall and produce 3-7 pounds of large berries.

Gardening authorities advise removing the flowers from the shrubs the first two years to promote foliar and root development. I found this very difficult the first year. The tiny shrubs developed beautifully and produced blossoms almost immediately – as you can see in the photo below. I felt like I was practically desecrating the plant – and more importantly, depriving myself of some tasty fruit! The promise in the literature that removing blossoms in the early years will produce better harvests in later years was only thing motivating me to comply with the rule.

It was a lot easier to pull off the blossoms last year because I could see that something was not quite right with the shrubs and I wanted them healthy before they went into fruit production. The leaves were paler than they should be and growth appeared to be slower than normal. I had a soil test done, expecting to find that the pH was too high. That was true – although it was close. But I was surprised to learn that the soil was very low in nitrogen.

Rick built beautiful two-tiered raised beds for our shrubs because blueberries need acidic soil (pH 4-5.5) and the soil here is very alkaline. With raised beds I thought I could better control the soil pH. (R
esearch at Ohio State University found that blueberry yields in raised beds were comparable to those planted in flat soil.) Following recommendations in a University of Iowa publication, I included a lot of peat in the soil mix. I later learned that peat has little to no nutrient value. So although I nearly achieved proper pH, the poor things were starved of nitrogen!

I amended with compost and chicken manure. I also switched to using pine needles to acidify the soil. In addition to the peat, I had added soil sulfur, but the yellow flakes never seemed to dissolve. Even when I had watered well, or we had a heavy rain, I’d find undissolved flakes in the soil. Someone recommended pine needles to me and I liked that idea. These are abundant around here, so I can minimize purchased inputs by using what’s available for free.

(Interestingly, Ruth Stout claimed (in her No-Work Garden Book (1971)) that once she built up her soil with organic matter, like hay, she found she didn’t need to pay attention to soil pH. Following Stout, my goal now is to prioritize soil building over pH – although I will continue to use pine needles.)

As with other perennial food crops, berry bushes are great for a Backyard Nest Egg. Once they’re established, you can harvest fruit for many years. They’re extraordinarily nutritious, with the
highest antioxidant capacity of all fresh fruit. Blueberries are one of the foods recommended to retard aging, preserve vision, and protect against heart disease. I just like to eat them – in muffins, pancakes, or most often, in yogurt. When we lived in Washington state many years ago, some friends showed us where to pick berries for free. We ate them fresh, baked them in pies, made jam, and froze many to last throughout the winter.

Last year I must have missed a few blossoms, because I found a couple of berries on one shrub that summer. They were delicious. If this year’s crop is just as good, we are in for a treat!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

No Community for This Garden

[Note: My laptop, recently on life support, has now expired - may she RIP. :( I have managed to get regular access to another laptop while I wait to get a new one, so WILL be posting more frequently.]

Over the last few years, dozens of articles have appeared in the media describing the development of community gardening projects across the country. But not every neighborhood welcomes a community garden. Google “opposition community garden” and you’ll find plenty of stories about resistance to community gardens in different areas across the country.

So, why do community gardens emerge and blossom in some neighborhoods and not others? Is it possible for community gardens to be established through the efforts of just a few dedicated volunteers, or is wider community support required to get the project going?

These are questions I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. Back in January, I wrote about an opportunity neighborhoods in our city were offered by the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation to establish urban orchards. I posted an email to our neighborhood list (which includes only about a third of households in the neighborhood) and was thrilled to get a group of 20+ volunteers willing to be trained to care for the trees and help maintain them, if our neighborhood was selected for the grant.

Ultimately, we did not get selected; neighborhoods with established garden projects were given preference. At the time, I thought that was a little unfair. How could new garden projects get started if preference is given to those with established projects?

Now I’m beginning to think that was a wise choice on the part of those determining which neighborhoods would be selected to apply for the grant. The interest I thought we had for an urban orchard quickly waned. After my initial disappointment that we were not selected to apply for the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation grant, I decided to use the list of volunteers I’d collected to pursue other grants, either for an urban orchard or community garden.

I emailed the group and set up a meeting, but attendance was low. Of those who initially expressed enthusiasm for an urban orchard, only four in addition to Rick and me showed up. Nobody else emailed (even after follow-up reminder emails from me) to say they wanted to be involved, but just couldn’t make that date and time. So I could only conclude that very few were interested.

Our tiny group of six decided to do a survey. The survey had two purposes:

1) to reach out to the two-thirds of the neighborhood not on the email list and perhaps enlarge the group of those interested in a garden project; and,

2) to fulfill a requirement for a local new garden grant.

The response rate to the survey was anemic – around 3% of households. (For comparison, among social researchers, a 33% response rate is considered “good” for a snail mail survey.) Responses were low even among the original group who volunteered for the urban orchard opportunity. Only about a quarter of that group responded to the survey.

So what’s going on with our neighborhood? I think it’s no accident that Detroit has a thriving community garden network while our (upper?) middle class neighborhood of university professors, lawyers, judges and other professionals is largely disinterested. People in areas hard hit by the economic downturn (impending collapse, some would say) have had to struggle to meet basic needs; i.e., food, shelter, and clothing – and in the process, learn about the importance of food security. Whereas many people in our affluent neighborhood do not seem to understand the value of growing your own food in your own neighborhood, when you can, as one person told me, "just go to the Farmer’s market or grocery store and buy it."

To be fair, one woman in our neighborhood is getting a children’s garden started at an elementary school. Unbeknownst to each other, she was trying to get a children’s garden going at the same time that I was pursuing the urban orchard. They are slated to break ground for the children’s garden this month.

The children’s garden has the advantage of having the land problem solved: they can plant it on school grounds. Whereas the location of an urban orchard or community garden will likely be contentious. The neighborhood association Board of Directors successfully resisted a past effort by the city to move a community garden to one of the two parks in our neighborhood. The Board argued that the park should be for all the residents of the neighborhood, and not just the few who would be gardening there.

When the Board was notified by a well-meaning neighbor that I was holding a meeting to discuss a potential urban orchard or community garden, the president fired off an email to me reiterating their opposition to use of a park for that purpose. I’d always thought their reasoning was ludicrous on its face: There are plenty of facilities at parks that not everyone uses – like the softball pitch that only softball teams use or the playground that only children use.

Besides, some people enjoy a garden even if they are not working in it themselves. Several elderly neighbors who responded to the survey indicated they would like to see a garden project in the neighborhood, but noted they would be unable to participate due to age or disability.

Moreover, the argument that a community garden should not be in a park because the park is for everyone, not just the few who garden, sounds like the kind of thing people say when they want to cover less worthy motives with something that sounds a little more high-minded.

The woman who initiated the children’s garden project advocated for it using educational research on children and learning. So far as I know, she has not encountered any opposition. I’m guessing that’s probably because it’s hard to oppose something that’s “for the children,” that has a foundation in research on education, that utilizes land nobody else is using, and that involves only people who live in the neighborhood.

It may be that I took the wrong approach to advocate an orchard or community garden. Not wanting to scare off my neighbors with talk of “peak oil,” the problems with industrial farming, climate change, predicted food security concerns, and the like, I instead wrote about my experience of a mini neighborhood orchard back in New Mexico.

I began my article for the quarterly neighborhood newsletter by describing the pecan trees that were planted in our New Mexico neighborhood as part of a Depression-era jobs creation program. I related how much our neighborhood enjoyed those pecans and that I had the opportunity to meet the guy who had been paid thirty-odd cents per tree to plant them.

Then I went on to talk about the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, how we were not selected for the grant, and noted that those selected already had established gardens and organizations to run them. My (not so subtle?) goals were to describe the non-controversial benefits of producing food in the neighborhood and to suggest that we were missing out on opportunities enjoyed by other neighborhoods who had already gotten started on their gardens. I urged everyone to make their “voice heard” by responding to the survey.

I was disheartened by the anemic response – but not too surprised. I’ll write in more detail about the survey results in my next post, but just leave you with this question. Of 998 households, only 32 (counting our own) responded. Two were opposed to any garden project, two opposed an orchard, and several preferred ornamental gardens like prairie gardens or rainwater gardens. Just 12 indicated they would be willing to help with an effort to get a garden project started. I had hoped to get a core group of at least twice that number. Given that 25 volunteers to help with an urban orchard quickly dwindled to six, (two of whom are Rick and me), my feeling is that 12 may be too few.

Or maybe I’m just lazy. I take that back. I don’t mind doing a lot of heavy lifting, as I already have done to solicit volunteers for the first grant opportunity for trees, research other grant opportunities, write the newsletter article and survey, recruit volunteers to hand deliver a quarter of the surveys (as our Board president funded postage only to those households who had paid their association dues) and now analyzing the survey results and writing a report.

But I can’t do everything, and feel I need a truly dedicated core group to work with to make it happen - especially as I have reason to believe there is more opposition than the survey indicates. What do you think? Anybody out there have experience with establishing a community garden in a relatively affluent neighborhood?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cherry Blossoms!

(Quick note: My laptop, which has been on life support, is quickly fading away. :( I'm writing this from someone else's laptop - hopefully, I'll get regular access until I replace my own - and so will be posting more frequently.)

Both our cherry trees are sporting beautiful blossoms on multiple branches - dare I hope for cherries this year? We planted dwarf Bing and Black Tartarian trees in the spring of 2007. Generally, cherries take 3-5 years to come into production, a bit less for dwarf trees. When I saw a few blossoms last spring, I got all excited, but only a handful appeared on one branch and I never saw any fruit.

Still, it was a hopeful sign. We took a chance planting sweet cherries. Door County, Wisconsin is famous for their tart cherries. However, here in Madison, we’re on the border between climate zones for sweet cherries and University extension publications generally advise against planting them.

But I love sweet cherries and didn’t want to plant fruit I’d have to add sugar to in order to eat them. (I’ve since learned that if you dry tart cherries, they’re sweet because the sugar is concentrated.)

Cherries are rich sources of antioxidants, helpful in preventing cancer and slowing the aging process. Cherries, and cherry juice, in particular, are an old-time folk remedy for gout and arthritis. My mother says my grandfather swore by cherry juice for his gout. I have an arthritic hip and can vouch for the effectiveness of cherry juice in reducing inflammation – and therefore pain. Medical science supports the claim of anti-inflammatory effects of cherries.
A study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2006 reported that consumption of Bing cherries lowered markers of inflammation in otherwise healthy men and women.

Those trees have been a lot of work. I’ve noted before that I never even heard of Japanese beetles until I moved to Wisconsin. Then I unwittingly set about planting just about everything they love to devour – roses, cherry trees (which are in the same botanical family as roses), raspberries. (Come to think of it, there aren’t too many plants those voracious beetles won’t devour.)

Japanese beetle season generally begins the first week in July. It’s been a battle every summer to protect those trees without chemical pesticides. The first year, we tried spraying them with Neem oil; however, the beetles all but laughed in our faces. Next, I sewed together large swaths of cheap, fine mesh netting (found in the bridal section of fabric stores) and we draped those over the trees. This worked okay, when the trees were small, although the wind tends to shift the netting, sometimes bending the branches, so we have to reposition.

As the trees got larger, this solution became unworkable. One year we tried stapling sheets of floating row cover together and draping this over the trees. Our neighbor thought it was cool-looking, especially at night, when a light breeze moved the draped trees giving the appearance of two large ghosts swaying.
I awoke one night, during a thunderstorm, looked out and saw the trees bent nearly double from the weight of the water on the row cover. Frantic, I shook Rick to wake him. “The cherry trees are about to snap in half!” I wailed. We ran outside in the pouring raining to remove the cover. Amazingly enough, they survived and eventually straightened up again.

Last year they were too big for any physical barrier. We just had to do the tedious work of picking the bugs off by hand. We fed them to the chickens who went crazy for them.

This year I plan on trying kaolin clay. I read about using this product for protecting the fruit long ago, but stupidly never considered using it to protect the leaves until someone recommended it to me last winter. With any luck, I’ll be protecting our first crop of cherries as well!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Spring has Sprung!

My computer's been down; luckily, I have my own personal, live-in IT guy - with benefits! It was a HUGE job to get it sorted out - Thanks, Rick!

Meanwhile, life goes on! Here's a little photo essay of some of the season's earliest growth in my garden. The first is (look closely!) lettuce coming up.

I planted pots of Bronze Arrow and Emerald Oak, as well as some baby leaf spinach and left the pots outside. I knew they would take longer to germinate there than inside under lights, but transplanting is always tricky and it's a pain in the ass to "harden off" plants.

Basically, this means dragging them in and out for a week or two, gradually leaving them outside for longer periods of time, so they can adjust to outdoor temperatures, light, and wind. I'm trying to avoid all that and minimize my use of grow lights by planting everything I can outside. I'd love to have a little greenhouse, and not use fossil fuels to start any seeds, but that's down the road a bit.

Besides conserving space under the lights, I'm also trying to conserve precious garden space by growing these in pots. Plus, I'm trying to get around the usual problem of having too much lettuce all at once in early summer, and then having it bolt as soon as the weather really warms. I'm thinking I'll plant a few at a time, move the pots to cooler spots when the weather warms, and hopefully, space my harvest out over a longer period of time.

Here you can see garlic coming up in the long containers, and maybe if you squint, see the spinach coming up in the clay pot.

I'm very pleased with the garlic. I planted it in the fall, when I planted garlic in other places in the garden - among the roses, in the herb garden, and a few in places I now can't remember!

Anyway, after I planted it, I checked "the bible;" i.e. McGee & Stuckey's The Bountiful Container and learned that garlic is one of the few crops they recommend against planting in containers. Oh, well.

I left them in the garage over the winter, stumbled across the pots a few weeks ago, and was pleased to see them sprouting! I think I will carefully transplant them soon, into the ground. Or maybe just one container, and leave the other - see how it works out.

Here is the current state of my herb bed. I should have taken a "before" photo; before I let the chickens dig here, and then pruned things back. You can see a heavily pruned clump of sage in the back, between the tree and the window.

To the right and forward of the sage, you can see chives coming up. To the left of the chives is a clump of oregano, with clumps of thyme in the left foreground. The right foreground has two seemingly bare patches that actually have mint and the only clump of parsley I left from last year coming up.

Parsley, as I'm sure you know, is a biennial. That means it will come up again this year, but quickly go to seed. I started new seedlings indoors, but left one of last year's so it can seed the garden for next year. Hopefully, that will be one less set of seedlings I'll have to start indoors next year.

Here's something fun - "volunteers"! I like this name for seedlings that you haven't planted, at least not this season, that sprout in unexpected places. These seedlings look like curcubits of some sort, but what I do not know. I don't remember ever planting cucumbers in one of these planter boxes, but it's entirely possible that compost I dumped in there had cucumber seeds in it.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think it's spaghetti squash. The reason is that, during winter, I gave one to the chickens. The hay you see on top is from the chicken pen. I wanted to keep them active in winter, as our extension agent advised, so put a flake of hay in there.

Normally, I wouldn't do this, because the hay, like their droppings, is high in nitrogen. The goal with a chicken pen is to keep the carbon (wood chips, e.g.) to nitrogen ratio high. If you have too much nitrogen, you end up with a very nasty smelling pen.

In the fall, they had a blast in the yard scratching apart flakes of hay. But in winter they just stood on it. I finally realized it was keeping them up off the cold frozen ground. So I gave them more, thinking I'd take it out as soon as the weather warmed - and before I ended up with a nasty mess on my hands.

A couple of weeks ago, I raked up the hay (which by now they had scratched apart), together with their droppings and other matter, put some of it in these planter boxes, and covered the planter boxes with plastic, thinking to speed the composting process. Yesterday, I took the plastic off, and voila! Curcubits.

The potatoes (that I wrote about here) sucessfully transplanted out. You can see one of our two potato towers in the background of this photo. In the foreground are three raised beds with dwarf blueberries.

What else? The raspberries are starting to leaf out. Indoors, I have Juliet, Amish Paste, and Brandywine tomato seedlings just sprouted under lights, as well as parsley, cilantro, basil, and eggplant. The bell peppers are just starting to lift their heads, and I'm still waiting on the poblanos and jalapenos.

What about you? What's sprouting in your neck of the woods?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Reflecting and Redirecting

I started this blog in July of 2009 as a way to write about my experiences of, and ideas about, a Backyard Nest Egg – an investment in food security. The idea gradually came to me, after a difficult period of my life. I had lost my second grant-funded job in three years, health problems that had been festering for awhile demanded my attention, and the stock market crashed, with many people losing a chunk of their retirement savings - some up to 40% of their 401Ks. It seemed to me then, and still does now, that investing in one’s own food security is one of the best nest eggs one can establish.

After all, I reasoned, what are our most basic needs to sustain life? We need food, shelter (a low-cost, low energy-consumption home is my next project – one that is in the beginning stages at this point), and clothing. Inspired by gardeners like Ruth Stout, who devised labor-saving strategies for producing, well into her eighties, all the vegetables she, her husband, and her sister required, I began thinking about how I could provide for Rick and myself. Three general principles emerged from my thinking and work: minimizing purchased inputs, labor-saving, and sure bets.

Minimizing purchased inputs means to me finding ways to produce food each year without buying tons of seeds, plants, fertilizer, and other garden amendments. Anybody who has done any gardening learns very quickly how fast these things can add up. When gardening is just a hobby, you don’t mind too much. But when the goal is to actually provide food for your family in hard times or during retirement, spending more on your garden than you would spend just buying food at the grocery store makes no sense.

Seed-saving, taking cuttings, rejuvenating a strawberry bed by training new runners and removing “mother” plants each year as I described in
Wednesday’s post, making your own compost, keeping chickens or some other small livestock, like rabbits, for fertilizer, planting perennial food crops like walking onions, asparagus, fruit trees and berry bushes are all ways to minimize your purchased inputs so that you can truly realize a return on your investment in food security.

Labor-saving, obviously, means finding ways to make the work easier. Initially, I was thinking about my health issues and inspired by Ruth Stout’s ideas for a “no-work” garden. I realized that serious gardening to put food on the table was possible even with physical limitations imposed by disability or advancing years. My goal was to investigate and write about gardening practices that enable gardening throughout one’s life. When I read Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution, my notion of labor-saving expanded from simple work reduction to encompass the need for free time in order to become a full human being. (Read more on Stout and Fukuoka’s ideas about “no-work” and “do-nothing” gardening and farming in
this post.)

Labor-saving strategies I’ve written about include no-till strategies of Ruth Stout, allowing your chickens to turn your soil a la
Garden Girl, sheet composting or latter day “lasagna” gardening (Patricia Lanza), returning organic matter to fields to compost there (Fukuoka) and the benefits of compost tumblers.

Finally, sure bets refers to the principle of diversity – planting a variety of crops and using multiple strategies to ensure that you are able to harvest something even in a bad year. For example, last summer I planted Juliets, Amish Paste, and German Queen tomatoes.
I harvested many Juliets, which are elongated cherry-type tomatoes that ripen early. However, we had a cool summer and “late blight” hit just as my beautiful Amish Paste and German Queen tomatoes were starting to ripen. Had I planted only the paste and slicing tomatoes, I’d have harvested virtually no tomatoes at all. As it happens, Juliets work well in salsas and we enjoyed many batches of that from our garden before the late blight.

How did we do that in a cool summer? Don’t chilies require warm weather? As I
described here, we grew the chilies in clay pots, rather than in the ground, and were harvesting fruit right through the fall.

I plan to continue writing about these three elements of a Backyard Nest Egg, and my experiences of gardening and keeping chickens, but the focus of this blog will expand to reflect my evolving sense that the right and responsibility of individuals to produce their own food needs to be articulated and even defended.

All social movements eventually experience push back of some kind, or counter-movements. The return to producing at least some of our food for ourselves will be no different. It’s a loose movement, certainly, composed of many people with many different motivations.

Some gardeners and chicken-keepers want to eat food that they know has been produced healthfully, others are concerned about our economic predicament and want a back-up food source, still others simply want to be more self-sufficient. For many, it’s a combination of these reasons. Nevertheless, I see it as a movement, not a “fad,” and as growing in size and strength.

The opposition is, at this point, is not organized or strong. However, the signs of opposition are everywhere, from people in middle class neighborhoods who resist community gardens and public orchards, to animal rights groups lobbying city officials to disallow chicken-keeping, to University extension agents concerned about the “threat” backyard chickens pose to industry. These are the issues I will be writing about, in addition to the usual chicken and garden topics, in the coming months.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Strawberries and Raspberries

It’s hard to say what I most look forward to in spring – opening the windows, at last, and filling the house with sweet fresh air, riding my bicycle outside, rather than on a trainer in front of the television, seeing the snow recede and the lawn green up, seemingly overnight. But I think number one on the list has to be checking the garden to find all the green shoots emerging from last year’s dead foliage.

So far, I’ve found sedum, Shasta daisies (VERY satisfying, because I planted them from seed last year), coreopsis, liatris, lupines, yarrow, sage and a few others I can’t remember just now. The hostas haven’t come back yet, nor the butterfly weed I planted from seed, and the roses and hydrangeas have yet to show signs of life. But it’s still early.

And the strawberries look fantastic! I pulled the hay aside about a week ago. I’m fairly new to growing strawberries, but the books say you’re supposed to remove their winter mulch early. This will be my first year with (I hope!) a significant crop, and I’m soooo looking forward to it, my mouth waters every time I think about it!

I first tried strawberries in 2008. So many books and articles describe strawberries as a great container plant, I thought I’d grow them in a strawberry pot I’d had for years and in a large planter box Rick built for me. I learned the hard way that the books and articles LIE! Anyone who has any experience growing strawberries knows they constantly send out runners and spread like weeds. They quickly outgrew their containers even though I was out there practically every day, cutting off new runners. They produced lots of beautiful foliage, but just a few small berries.

Part of the problem was the cultivar. The garden center was out of my top choice, Honeoye, so I bought Ogallala, just because I used to live in Nebraska and liked the name! Unlike Honeoyes, Ogallalas are everbearing, which means instead of one main crop in spring (usually June), you get a small crop in spring, and another crop later in the summer.

Which means the few my plants were producing were spread out over the season, making the tiny crop seem even smaller. Plus, the Ogallala produces a “medium to small” berry, even in optimal conditions, so it’s no wonder I got such small berries out of a container.

The next year I decided to get the cultivar I wanted, plant them in the ground, and follow the method of my new guru, Ruth Stout, for rejuvenating the patch. The books will tell you to buy new plants every few years, but Stout was a thrifty woman, and buying new doesn’t fit in with my notion of minimizing purchased inputs for your Backyard Nest Egg. Since her garden was wonderfully successful, and she prided herself on ignoring what she called the “authorities,” I’ll do the same. Here is her method in her words:

I planted three rows of berries, the rows about 8 inches apart. . . I let the first plant in each row make only one runner, straight down the row, and let the other plants in each row make two runners, one up, one down, the row. When I was finished I had three rows of plants, the rows 8 inches apart, the plants in
each row 1 foot apart. But it looks like and is, actually, one row. . .

A year from the following spring, after I had picked the first crop, I pulled up the first plant in each of the three rows, left plants number two and three, pulled up four, left five and six, and so on. In other words, I got rid of the mother plants and left the runners they had made. Then during that summer, the plants I kept were allowed to make just enough runners to replace the ones I had pulled up. Year after year, the older plants are removed, the newer ones are left, and that isn’t much of a job. You have a permanent bed of strawberries and will never have to transplant again unless of course you want
to try a new variety . . .

in August when, I’ve been told, the plants make their buds for next year, I treat them to a little cotton-seed meal for nitrogen
(Ruth Stout's No Work Garden Book, 1971, pp127-8).

I tried doing the same, but it came out a little messy. Still, it was at least controlled growth. I let one stolon grow on each side of each plant, staked it where I wanted it with a hairpin, and cut any other runners off. After I get my berries this year, I’ll try removing the “mothers” and let last year’s runners set some new plants in their place for next year.

I also have high hopes for a good raspberry crop this year. I planted them in 2008. They were just twigs and looked like this:

Raspberries have one of two fruiting habits: summer bearing and fall bearing. The summer bearing actually bear in late spring or early summer, and on canes that grew the prior summer. The fall bearing cultivars produce fruit late in the season, mid-August to mid-September, on the current season’s canes. (For this reason, they’re not a good choice for northern climates because our growing season is so short.)

I chose summer bearing over fall bearing partly because of our short growing season, but also because I wanted the fruit to set before Japanese beetle season starts, usually in early July. Several of our neighbors had raspberry patches that were decimated by Japanese beetles, so I wanted to avoid that. The plan was to cover them with fine netting (which interferes with pollination) once Japanese beetle season starts.

This worked beautifully last year. We had a small crop of berries, which was to be expected the first year, but the plants were fully protected and grew lush foliage and many new canes. (I can’t believe I didn’t take a photo last year – they looked fantastic! But I can’t seem to find one just now.)

But here’s where I made a mistake. There are two prunings that need to be done: one in the summer of the canes that grew the prior year, after they fruit this year, and one in late winter to remove the top ¼ of canes that will fruit this year. Some sources claim you can do the first pruning either in summer after fruiting, or wait until spring and do both prunings at once. (In fairness, most sources advise doing two prunings.) Lazy me decided to wait until spring and do both at once.

Here’s the problem: Now I can’t tell which are the canes that bore fruit last year and which are the canes that will bear this year! It was easy to tell them apart last summer, because the canes that had just fruited were woody, and the canes that will fruit this year were green. Of course, by now, both types of canes are woody! Lesson learned: Prune the old canes after they fruit; don’t wait until the next spring! It’s not that much work.

Since my master gardener’s manual says canes should be thinned to 4-6 canes per running foot of row, and canes in my patch are still almost that thin, I opted to leave the old canes in this year and just prune about a quarter off the tops of all the canes. If the canes that produced fruit last year don’t leaf out, I’ll remove them then.