Sunday, March 23, 2008

Inspired Gardening on NPR

I heard a great story on NPR about a native woman who gardens in the Amazon. I don't think I'll look at my fruits, flowers, and vegetables the same again!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Portrait of a Flock

The girls don't lay in the winter. It's part of their natural cycle, and we don't provide them with a light bulb. Often done for a little additional heat in cold weather, the bulb encourages them to lay, too. (It's the length of day that gets them to start and stop.) We decided we didn't want an extension cord running out to the coop, and we also thought if Mother Nature thought they should just focus energy on eating and surviving it was good enough for us.

Our flock is small and so is their coop. The roof opens up so we can lean in to do a count at night, collect eggs, and tidy things up. They have a bar to roost on, and two nesting boxes. We cleaned out the coop in the fall and put down a thick layer of cedar chips. As the girls make their "deposits" we add more cedar chips. The heat created by the composting process helped keep them warm, and will make some excellent fertilizer for the garden, too.

A small door on one end lets them come and go during the day, but we close them up at night. This is sometimes the hardest part, especially if we're out of town. We close them up after they go to bed (or we entice them to bed early if we're going out for an evening) to protect them against predators. Raccoons and opossums are waking up looking for that first post-hibernation snack, and I have no doubt the coyotes know about our little poultry buffet, too. We sleep better knowing they sleep safely.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Decision to Free Range

Our girls roam free. They enjoy exploring the yard, eating what the birds and the squirrels drop from our feeders, sunning in the lower part of our barn, eating out the compost pile, and walking the trails of our yard. Our last group enjoyed crossing the road to our neighbors yard, and they even strolled up the road sometimes.

The Benefits
Free range chickens eat well - so many greens, bugs, and other critters - and produce the best eggs I've ever seen in my life. The shells are thick and hard to break. The yolks are brilliant gold, and stain the bowl when we mix up an omelet or scrambled eggs. Study results published in Mother Earth News showed that free range eggs (literally roaming free out under the sun versus roaming freely in an over-packed hen house) have higher nutritional value - lower in bad cholesterol, high in all that good stuff - than conventional eggs from chickens raised in a high-density setting on a diet of grain that includes antibiotics and pesticides.

The Risks
Free range chickens are at risk. Predators (coyotes, hawks, raccoons, foxes, oppossums, skunks), cars, dogs, etc. tend to also free range, especially in the country. Having a small free range flock is delightful for the eggs and the joy of seeing a chicken ambling about your yard, but they are in more danger than they would be in a contained run.

What We Do
Other than hoping for the best for them each and every day, we take a few precautions. We lock them up each night around dusk and let them out each morning. This is labor intensive and sometimes tedious. If we're out of town for an extended period we need to schedule family, friends and neighbors to help out. If it's just one evening, we'll rustle them into the coop using bird seed.

We put away their feeder each night. Their food is attractive not only to them, but to predators. One night I found an opossum inside the feeder when I went to pick it up.

Predators are often attracted by the chicken smell. By closing the girls up at night, we figure we lower the smell a bit for the evening. We also figure that by having them free range the smell is dispersed. (We realize we may be fooling ourselves.)

We gather eggs every day. Predators also like eggs. By gathering them each day it means the eggs won't be left to rot and smell. We do leave a wooden egg in the nesting box so the girls don't feel completely bereft. No one has been broody, and so far we don't think they're laying elsewhere. We did have that problem a year ago with the first flock, but the wooden eggs seem to help. I also don't let them see me take the eggs out of the nesting box. This probably is more me than them, but I don't want to risk it.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Ladies are Laying

The Ladies, as we like to call our four girs - Kooretza, Asa, Rhoda, and Rocky - are back in the egg business. As part of their natural cycle, they stopped laying last fall when they started molting (talk about stressful for everyone!) and didn't start again until about two weeks ago. Koortetza is an Araucana and the only survivor of our original gang of five. The other three are a mixed batch a friend of mine shared with me this past August. They are an Isa Brown, a Rhode Island Red, and a Barred Rock. (Hence, their names.)

Kooretza lays lovely light green blue eggs, and is the most regular layer we have. She's laid almost an egg a day since this latest round. The others all lay brown eggs, and unless there is a feather attached (and sometimes there is) we don't know who used the nesting box that morning.

We've had chickens for about two years now. We got them solely for the eggs, and now we have them for eggs, their terrific compost, and the entertainment value. The first gang of Araucanas were good fun and laid beautiful eggs; however, we lost them in ones and twos. One simply died at the coop door (we buried her in the garden and she gave us some of our best tomatoes), two were hit by a car (we left them for the coyotes to clean up), and one was taken by a fox living in the nearby culvert. Koortetza survived, and we consider her possibly our smartest chicken.

When we brought the new girls home, the pecking order needed to be established. Koortetza made it clear that the coop and the roost were hers, and they would do her bidding. One night there was such a commotion that I opened the roof to see what was happening. There I saw my girl, Koortetza, standing (literally) on top of Rhoda "discouraging" her presence on the roost. Like molting, this was a bit traumatic for all of us. When we'd check on them before closing up the coop, we'd see Koortetza in her usual spot and the other three huddled at the opposite end of the roost.

We suspected that the coming winter would make friends of them all, and so it did. As the temperatures dropped, the new girls inched closer to K. Finally, I found Rhoda snuggled under K's wing, and the others nearby. Peace at last.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Burn the Front Lawn

Eventually we plan to do a controlled burn of our yard. At our house we've chosen a non-traditional front lawn. Much to the chagrin of our neighbors, and some family and friends we don't mow the whole south section and only trails through the backyard. The north side we mowed until this year.

This past Friday we came home, and without missing a beat changed our shoes, grabbed the matches, a couple rakes, and headed out. The humidity was a bit too high, and the grass was a bit too wet still. The fire mostly ran over the top, but it was still highly satisfying.

Controversial as this can seem, we love it. Trails wend their way through the large space to the south of our house, making a previously dull space have a little flavor of adventure. Bees, butterflies, snakes, and neighbor cats in heat all enjoy it. Our space is also too large for a push-mower, and with the high price of fuel as well as the fact that engines on mowers aren't regulated for emissions, we thought it best to minimize our impact. Our ultimate dream is to turn the bulk of it into garden - vegetable and perennial beds that are a mix of natives and non-natives like hollyhocks that I find irresistible - that we'll enjoy for years to come.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Which Came First...

In our case, the chickens were surely first. In fact, in our first batch of girls we thought we would never see eggs. Yet, the eggs finally came. And we similarly thought with this group in the Fall that eggs were being hidden.

More importantly, my mother-in-law posed the most mind-boggling question: How do they do that? How does that little bird produce something that big nearly every day?

Egg formation is perhaps one of the most amazing processes I've ever read about. My fascination is perhaps because I have begun again to find them (one brown, one blue today!), and I marvel at what my girls do with all they eat.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Svalbard Seed Bank - A Hot Spot in a Cool Place

The seed bank in Svalbard is not exactly the next big vacation spot, but for those who think about food production and participate in it, even at the gardening level, it is very exciting!

The seed bank is meant to store seed samples from around the world - Mexico, Africa, and India to name a few - in an effort to save endangered plants from extinction as well as preserve biodiversity. Seed banks preserve seeds of fruits and vegetables from natural disasters, wars, and industrial farming. Recent changes in the political and global climate spurred the construction of an international seed bank to house and protect seeds from around the world. Construction began in 2006, and cooling in November, 2007. The seeds need to be kept at minus 20 degrees Celsius. Seed Savers Exchange deposited samples of their seeds, along with other organizations and seed banks from around the world. Organized in part by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the seed bank will be a vital resource for the future.

Take a look at the seed bank and its construction, while this article from the San Francisco Chronical offered further information.