Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mid-Winter Blues

It’s hard to write a blog post about gardening in winter, and not just because there are fewer gardening chores to write about. It’s depressing, for me, anyway, to look out the window and see a foot or more of snow on the ground. It snowed last night, yesterday, and the day before, just an inch or so here and there, but enough to remind me that the annual nightmare we call winter is not going away yet.

Even the chickies seem to have the mid-winter blues. They run to the door of their pen eagerly when I open it, then stand in the doorway staring at the snow. Eventually, they walk away, beaks down, back into their little pen, defeated by yet another dreary day with a yard full of snow upon which they refuse to walk.

I returned mid-February from a trip to southern California to soak up some sunshine and visit relatives. I thought a mid-winter trip would provide a break and make the winter seem shorter. When I get back, I thought, it will be time to start seedlings under grow lights and in a few weeks, the snow cover will have melted.

With fantasies like these, you’d never know I spent much of my life in the Midwest. I grew up in Kansas and Illinois. I left when I was 18, but returned to the Midwest in my mid-thirties, living in Nebraska until about 6 years ago when I moved to Wisconsin. So I do have some inkling of what a Midwestern winter entails. Yet every year I delude myself into thinking “it’s nearly over” long before it is.

Wisconsin is by far the coldest part of the Midwest that I’ve lived in. There are many things I love about Wisconsin, the lush forests, the abundant lakes (when I moved here, one proud Wisconsin resident informed me that, although Minnesota bills itself as the “land of 10,000 lakes," Wisconsin actually has more), the plentiful wildlife – but winter is not one of them.

After experiencing my first winter here, I so dreaded the next one that the following autumn, I had low-level anxiety attacks as winter drew near. Over the years, I’ve become less anxious at the onset of winter, but I haven’t learned to like it. I wish I could. Some people here love winter sports – like cross-country skiing or ice fishing. My sister Donna and her friend Trish love to go on the night-time candle-lit hikes along snowy trails offered by some state parks.

If, like me, you love the outdoors, but don’t enjoy winter sports, the season drags on because you just spend it waiting for the weather to improve! And if one of your favorite outdoor activities is gardening, you’re really in for a long wait – followed by a frenzy of activity to get everything going to make the most of a short season.

Ironically, the wait was made more trying by the trip to California. It was hard not to be envious of the bountiful winter gardens, with gorgeous large heads of cauliflower and broccoli, peas trained up fences, and luxuriant lettuces. I failed completely to contain my jealousy at the sight of citrus trees loaded with fruit, what are to Midwesterners “exotic” trees like avocado growing in people’s back yards, and huge rosemary shrubs (my very favorite herb – which can’t survive the harsh Wisconsin winters.)

The good news (and there is a cheerful spot in this otherwise gloomy post!) is that the weather is subtly changing. The biting cold is past and the air is sweet, with the barest whiff of spring. I hear many more birds than I did a month ago. And I can start my spring gardening soon!

Mid-March is when I start tomato, eggplant, chili, and bell pepper seedlings under lights. I’ll start some lettuce and spinach, too, but they’ll get planted out earlier than the warm weather loving solanaceae family of plants. I plan on pruning my fruit trees and raspberries next month as well.

In April I’ll plant potatoes, peas, and carrots directly in the garden and start squashes and melons indoors, as well as herbs like parsley and cilantro. Like the chickens, I can’t wait to start scratching in the soil!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Review of Home to Roost: Chasing Chickens through the Ages

Home to Roost is Bob Sheasley’s meditation on his research about chickens and their relationship with humans through the ages. The book is a fascinating and seemingly comprehensive examination of cultural beliefs about chickens and historical practices. For example, did you know that:

* Chickens were originally domesticated for cock-fighting. Cockfighting was especially popular among the aristocracy in Europe, but also in the U.S. Henry VIII, George Washington and Ben Franklin were enthusiasts.

* Many cultures used chickens for divination. In Cambodia and Thailand, shamans broke open the eggs to study patterns and colors while the ancient Greeks and Romans read chicken entrails. The Etruscans employed a less violent method, using chickens almost as living Ouija boards. According to Sheasley:

A temple priest would scribe a circle on the ground, make the letters of the alphabet around it, and place a kernel of corn on each letter. Inside the circle, he would position a sacred chicken. “Who will be the next emperor?” the priest would ask, or some such urgent question. As the chicken, wise and hungry, began eating, the priest paid rapt attention. And a remarkable thing happened: The chicken produced a sequence of letters, which the spellbound Etruscans found profound” (p45).
(I’m planning to try this game in the summer!)

* The Egyptians were mass producing eggs in 3000 BC! According to the Greeks, the Egyptians “built incubators of clay bricks that could brood up to ten thousand chicks” (p73).

Sheasley also examines contemporary issues and research, discussing problems with commercial chicken and egg production, the value of labels such as “cage-free” and “free range,” and reports studies finding, for example, that chickens put on weight faster if exposed to classical music.

I was particularly interested in the section on chicken mating practices. Sheasley reports that there is remarkable amount of research devoted to this. Apparently, hens are more discerning than they might appear. Researchers found, for example, that they can differentiate between roosters' calls that they’ve found food, and learn to ignore the liars. About 40% of the time, according to an Australian researcher, roosters’ calls are false.

Sheasley notes that researchers found that hens “wanted an honest rooster,” but more than that, wanted a brave one. Besides learning which calls for food are true, hens learn which alarm calls are reliable. Such calls were found to be the “strongest predictor of rooster success in mating” (p136).

Canadian researchers also studied whether hens preferred rougher broiler roosters or gentler roosters of layer breeds. They found that while different hens preferred different roosters, as they matured they generally preferred gentler roosters.

Frighteningly, broilers, bred to put on weight quickly and grow abnormally large breasts, and then genetically engineered in an effort to strengthen their hearts to better withstand this aberrant growth pattern, were found to be the most violent in their treatment of hens. They are excessively rough when mating, and some even attack and kill hens.

Sheasley weaves all this chicken lore with his experience of chicken-keeping in rural Pennsylvania. Written in a rambling style, reminiscent of a stroll down a country lane on a warm afternoon, and including imaginary conversations with Ulisse Aldrovandi, a 16th-century Italian scholar and naturalist, Sheasley’s treatise is a enjoyable read for anyone interested in history, culture, and chickens.