Our First Feathered Friends

September 11, 2012 at 9:09 pm (DIY, food, Gardening, Other, permaculture) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Following a mid-July family getaway, I set to work on a singular goal: GET CHICKENS!

I’d been thinking about whether to do this for a long time.  I’d read so many books on chicken keeping that I felt there was nothing left to learn except through firsthand experience.  Making the decision all the more clear was the fact that I already had a covered four-post structure and weather-proof shed in my backyard that I wasn’t using.  Following a major clean-up, some minor reapirs, and the addition of nest boxes and a sturdy bar for roosting, the shed would become a large coop where the birds would be safe at night.  The covered structure only needed some physical support, chicken wire, and a recycled screen door to become an outdoor chicken run where the birds would have access to fresh air and sunshine.

Eleanor helping paint the door frame; shed by the basement door for nighttime housing.

The kitchen window looks down on the chicken run–perfect for keeping an eye out for the girls!

The building process was pretty straightforward, the only major snag being the nest of angry yellowjackets in the ground beneath one of the corner posts.  The vibration of my hammering drove them crazy; they would pour out of the entrance to their nest, fly all around scouting for danger, then slowly calm down and go back inside.  Having to back off and wait them out was really slowing things down.  I suffered two rather unpleasant stings to my hand, but soldiered on, talking sweetly to them and telling them I meant them no harm.  In fact, if they would just let me finish, the chickens would soon be helping to fertilize the garden, which in turn would host insects for them to live off of.  Who bargains with bugs, anyway?

Hubbie suited up to work over the wasp nest.

I saved the post above the wasp nest for last and then I did what any sane woman would do–I begged my dear Hubbie to get in there and nail up the chicken wire for me.  He kindly obliged, putting on thick leather gloves and his winter raincoat for wasp protection.  He was sweating bullets in the middle of the only “heatwave” our miserable summer could muster up and, thinking he’d be covered in angry wasps, he planned to get in there and get the job done as quickly as possible.  And then–miracle of miracles!–not a single yellowjacket emerged as he drove in the first nail.  Proceeding with much trepidation, he completed the job without siting a single one.  The hive was gone!

For the last six weeks we believed they had simply moved house.  Strangely, all that remained was a large hole that looked to be the handiwork of a small animal.  Then, last night I came across the fact that a skunk or raccoon will dig out a wasp nest and eat the larvae.  For several nights in a row a few weeks ago Hubbie and I had seen a skunk rather cutely waddling through the unmown grass in the front yard.  Mystery solved; thank you Skunk!

The girls are introduced to their new home. Two standard-sized hens hopped right out; the pigeon-sized bantams had to consider it.

Buying that first bag of chicken feed was like crossing a threshold, a point of no return: we were really getting chickens!  We drove all the way out to Maple Ridge to pick out the four hens from a woman named Loretta.  She had dozens of chickens on her 12-acre property and had, at one time, tried to keep them separated by breed so that she could raise purebred chicks.  But, she greatly valued them having free range, so they tended not to breed as she wished them to.  She said that she gave up after a while and settled for raising healthy, happy mixed-breed birds–not such a bad compromise, really.  When it comes to dogs, I’ve always preferred a friendly mutt over a finicky purebred myself, so I totally agreed with her philosophy.

We chose to take home two likely-pure Old English Game Bantams (very small, amusing, and good for children) and two standard-sized hens.  The largest hen, Goldie, is likely an Orpington x Cochin cross and the white hen with gray-green feet she said was probably an Araucana x Cochin.

Dada gets a turn at the feeding trough. The Strawberry Shortcake tray from 1985 is what we serve “treats” on. It makes a nice metallic sound that the girls now recognize.

Goldie and Lord Snow hang out together a good bit.  Here they’re dust-bathing in an old metal sink filled with dirt.

Having hens has been fairly easy so far.  Only once have we had a missing-chicken-scare!  We were late eating dinner one night and the girls were antsy for their pre-bed free range time so we let them out and continued with our dinner, keeping a close eye out the window for them.  When I saw the neighbor’s cat in our yard, we all ran outside to shoo him away and do a head count to be sure and… we couldn’t find Fluffy anywhere!

Her beautiful coloring is called Wheaten. OEG Bantams are only about the size of pigeons at full maturity.

Fluffy was Eleanor’s personal selection and is so sweet, Ellie was handling her and hand-feeding her the day we brought them home.  We were quite sure Johnny Trouble couldn’t have gotten her that fast and there were no signs of a chicken abduction, so we just waited for the sunlight to fade that magical amount that would trigger the chickens’ head-for-home instinct.  For the remainder of our meal we spoke very seriously to Eleanor about the slim chances of this bird returning; we, perhaps a bit insensitively, tried to console her with the reminder that these chickens were to be food-producing animals, not pets, so we shouldn’t be too sentimental about it.  About half an hour later, quite unbelievably, Fluffy came walking around the corner of the house just as the other birds were starting to make their way toward the coop door.  She had been hiding from the cat, we supposed.  She and Dada did a reunion dance and that was that; they went in to roost for the night.

It turns out that chickens are the ultimate creatures of habit and, for this reason, it isn’t hard at all to get them in and out.  Since our coop is not contained within or directly attached to the outdoor run but is actually separated by about five feet, I was worried in the beginning that it would be difficult to herd them into the run in the morning without setting up some kind of “chicken chute” to prevent them escaping.  By now, though, we’ve settled into a timely routine that works for us.

The hens now get some free range time in the morning when they first come out of the coop and in the evening before they go back in to roost for the night.

Now, we’re just waiting for eggs.  Not wanting to raise chicks our first time, we started with 4-5 month old pullets, so they should be getting near old enough to lay by now.  However, egg production is influenced by hormones triggered by daylight and since the days are getting shorter and shorter, it could be spring before we have consistently good egg production, even if they started laying  now.  Supplemental lighting for a few hours a day may be something to try during the winter months.  For now, we’re just enjoying watching and being with our first feathered friends!

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Hugel What?

February 13, 2012 at 6:46 am (DIY, Gardening, permaculture) (, , , , , )

Hugelkultur…as in raised garden beds built, mound-like, of bramble and soil.

I’m expanding the garden once again with the addition of a hugelkultur raised bed on the rear of our property.  The project was inspired by and decided upon within an hour of finishing reading Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture, in which Holzer describes a method for establishing new and long-lasting garden beds by simply piling up raw materials and covering them over with soil.  Hugel is German for hill, or mound.

The inner-most ingredient in a Hugel bed is wood–branches and trimmings from the yard, old lumber if it isn’t treated or painted with lead, even entire fallen trees for a really long bed.  By design, the wood, as it decomposes in the center of the mound, should become like a sponge and hold a resevoir of water which plant roots can tap into and feed from.  The largest wood goes in the center, followed by smaller branches and brambles.  I didn’t happen to have any fallen trees at hand, just a sad Christmas tree the city kept missing on collection day and a fifty-year-old carpet that had sat outside in the rain for a year, molding and falling apart.  Into the Hugel bed they went.

Carpet and rotting wood form the foundation of the Hugelkultur garden addition.

The middle layer of the bed can be made of whatever organic materials are on hand… anything biodegradable, really.  I would put coarser materials on first, like straw and leaves; then finer, nutritive materials like manure and/or compost.  The latter will provide immediate fertility to initial plantings, while the longer break-down time of the former will ensure continued fertility and soil tilth.

Finally–and I’m not even to this step yet–the bed should be covered with topsoil and planted into immediately.  As plants get established and start growing, sending down their roots, the layers of the bed will be woven together so that the whole thing holds.  Mulching between plants will also help retain soil and water.  Alternately, you could sow the whole bed with a “green manure” cover crop like clover, vetch, or lupins which would hold the soil in place and fix nitrogen in preparation for planting a heavy-feeding crop like corn on the new hugel bed.

I think my new Holzer-inspired hugel bed will be planted with clover and lupins initially and, later, with sunflowers, peas, beans, squash, some heat-loving herbs, and the tayberry (which will be trained against the wall of the neighbor’s garage).  When completed, my hugel bed won’t be nearly as high as Holzer makes his, but with the addition of a trellis along its ridge for the vining plants to grow up, I think it will do double duty as a privacy screen blocking the view from the lane behind our property.  I’ll post more pics as it comes together over the next few weekends.

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My Foray Into Vermi-Composting

January 19, 2012 at 6:59 pm (DIY, food, Gardening, permaculture, Vancouver) (, , , , , , , )

If you read my previous post about the City of Vancouver’s various programs for handling organic waste, you’ll know that composting with worms is a great option for residents of apartments and condos because worm bins are compact and odor-free.  My family is fortunate to have found an affordable house to rent in Vancouver (what’s really rare is that we have a basement; there’s no “mortgage-helper” suite below) and we have a yard that is all ours to garden as we please.  So, I do have one of the city-subsidized black plastic compost bins in my garden, but I wanted to try out vermi-composting for myself.

A tangle of worms--are they having a party?

There are several reasons I wanted to start a worm bin; they boil down to convenience, speed, and frequency of harvest.  When it’s cold and rainy outside, it’s a pain in the neck running out behind the garden to the big black bin, so my indoor compost collection bucket started to overflow and stink; I tried keeping a larger bucket just outside the backdoor to reduce the number of trips out back, but it just served to attract raccoons and those little buggers soon found that all they had to do was roll the bucket down the stairs and it would crash open, spilling its delicious contents.  Having a worm bin in the basement is way more convenient, although I’d have to expand my vermi-composting operation by three or four times my current capacity to be able to handle all my kitchen scraps this way; for now, we still have to make trips to the backyard bin, just not as frequently.  In my experience so far, food scraps are digested much quicker in the worm bin than in the backyard composter, probably due, in part, to the steady temperature and humidity levels of the indoors compared to the wild swings in outdoor conditions.  Keeping the worm bin indoors means I can have compost year-round, unlike with the backyard bin, which all but ceases activity in the cold of winter.  Whereas the outdoor bin produces a harvest of compost once, maybe twice, a year, the worm bin yields smaller but more frequent harvests of a high-quality soil additive fine enough for seed-starting.  Aside from the foregoing reasons, I find the ecosystem of the worm bin fascinating to watch.  Give me a few more months with my worms and I might be calling them pets.

I’ve mentioned Frank before: he was the original owner of this house and lived here for over sixty years.  Well, his family didn’t do such a great job clearing out his things when they moved the old man to a seniors’ home.  Going through a garden storage space under the house, I found a large (I’d guess 15″ x 24″ x 8″) Rubbermaid storage container with a tight-fitting lid and I immediately thought of making a worm bin out of it.  I knew enough from reading up on it and I already had a source for worms, so I didn’t feel the need to spend $25 getting the bin and tutorial at the Compost Demonstration Garden.  Worms and bacteria breathe oxygen, so to ventilate the plastic bin, I drilled holes all the way around it and about two inches below the top edge.  For fear that the worms might try to escape, I used the smallest bit in my toolbox, although now I realize this was an unfounded fear: given enough oxygen and moisture inside, the worms won’t brave the dry air outside.  They also prefer the dark, and since my bin is clear plastic, I keep it covered with a towel.  Still, they congregate in the center where they’re covered with bedding and have plenty to eat.  When I first introduced the worms to their new home, I made bedding for them by shredding newspaper–and lots of it because it compacts when wet.  I got my worms from a friend (thanks Sarah!) who has the official city-subsidized worm bin that comes with Red Wigglers.  She gave them to me in a bucket of unfinished compost so I’d have plenty of bacteria and whatever other microbes are essential to the process (and because it’s impossible to really separate them).  The worms settled in nicely and within a few weeks, I could tell their numbers were increasing and they could start to handle small amounts of kitchen scraps.

When the old bedding got really mushy, I added more shredded newspaper.

It’s been three or four months since I started the worm bin and I’ve just last week applied my first harvest of vermi-compost to a soil/vermiculite mixture for starting seeds indoors (the two 2 x 4′ fluorescent tube fixtures that I use also once belonged to Frank).  I am able to feed the worms about once a week without overdoing it.  Some people say they have preferences for certain types of foods, but I haven’t really noticed.  They seem to gobble up anything remotely palatable to you or I; the one addition I’ve made to the bin that they really didn’t seem to like and took forever to digest was plant trimmings from an aquarium.  Perhaps the leaves of aquatic plants are too fibrous… Perhaps the pieces were too large… They completely devoured an addition of leftover couscous in record time (I’m talking mere days), leading me to believe that the rate at which they can break down an addition of food scraps has everything to do with particle size.  It makes sense: the smaller the pieces, the greater the total surface area exposed to air, moisture, and bacteria, which, as I understand it, have to kind of pre-digest the food before worms can handle it.  Now, before adding anything to the bin, I use my big kitchen knife and practically mince it.  I’ve even read that some people use a food processor or blender to puree food scraps before giving them to their worms, thus maximizing surface area and minimizing the time it takes for worms to break it down.  I’ll try this if the food processor is already dirty the next time I intend to make an addition to the bin; otherwise, I don’t care to wash it.

If you look closely, you may be able to see the small white ones.

In my worm bin, I actually have two different types of worms.  There are Red Wigglers, which are kind of fat, pinkish-brown in color, and about two inches long at maturity; and, there are lots of skinny white worms no more than half an inch long.  At first, I thought the white ones were just baby Red Wigglers, but I did some research and found that this is a common misconception, that they are, in fact, two distinct types of worms.  One clue: I’ve never observed an intermediary whitish-pinkish teenage worm.  What I have observed is far more interesting and offers a clue to how the worm bin ecosystem works.  The large red worms do not flock to new additions of food; they seem concentrated in older, nearly-finished material.  Presumably, bacteria and whatever other unseen microbes are in there are the first to attack new additions, priming the pump, so to speak, for the larger decomposers to do their jobs.  Then, I observe large numbers of the small white worms starting to break down scraps that are still identifiable as human food.  For sure there is some overlap in their roles, but the large red worms don’t usually seem interested until the food is partially broken down.  So, their different dietary habits are another clue that they’re not the same species of worm.

The worms loved the couscous. I separate the nearly-finished compost towards the front of the bin.

To harvest the vermi-compost, it isn’t entirely necessary to separate the worms, but if you intend to use the finished compost in your garden outdoors, any worms that go out with it may not survive depending on the climate where you live.  It is my understanding that Red Wigglers are not native to the Vancouver area and cannot survive the coldish winters here.  Besides, it is desirable to keep as many worms in the worm bin so they can continue doing the work you’re paying them for.  Separating them is fairly simple.  When I start to see a lot of finished-looking compost around the bin, I just use my trowel to push it close to the front of the bin; any scraps that are still whole and need more time in the bin, I push towards the back, piling them up with the bedding and any new food I’m adding.  I drape the towel over the back of the bin only, leaving the front exposed to the light.  The next time I check on the worms, the nearly-completed compost at the front will be almost completely devoid worms, as most of them will have moved away from the light and towards the new food in the back.  There may still be a few of the larger, red worms still working on whatever remains to be eaten in the front, but for the most part, the worms will have separated themselves from the finished product.  I imagine, they’d move out completely given enough time, but having to pick a few out and toss them back when you go to harvest the finished compost is no big deal.  A another tell-tale observation that lets me know my bin is working as it should: there is absolutely no odor emanating from the bin.  By this I am truly shocked, because you’d expect a box of decomposing food waste to have a major stink about it, but it doesn’t (a stinky worm bin, like a stinky compost heap, would be an indication of anaerobic decomposition and should be remedied with adequate ventilation).  In fact, it has the pleasant, earthy aroma of a healthy ecosystem.

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How to Build a Greenhouse

December 19, 2011 at 7:09 am (DIY, Gardening, permaculture) (, )

A unique thing about our property is that the original owner, Frank–the man who first moved into this house in the late 1940’s–resided here up until just three years ago.  He spent over sixty years in this house, living and working and cultivating this garden that I love but is no more mine than a mountain.  It’s obvious he put a lot of love and effort into making this his home–unique little details and customizations that are hard to find in Vancouver’s newly renovated rental properties, which is to say, practically all of them.

The old greenhouse that Frank built. Check out the custom gutter!

One of the things Frank customized was a small greenhouse in the garden in the back.  It obviously wasn’t a professional job, but it seems Frank had a good head for fixing and putting things together.  He fashioned the greenhouse out of 2’x4’s and irregular sizes of glass, some of it framed out like windows, some of it loose.  The footprint of the whole structure measured 5.5′ x6.5′ and we built the new greenhouse the same, but we’re told by a neighbor who knew Frank that he originally built it at least twice that long so that it extended the length of the adjoining neighbor’s garage.

By the time of our inheriting this structure, it was most decidedly decrepit.  The sheets of glass making up the roof were hanging dangerously off the edge and I actually didn’t feel safe entering the greenhouse as it stood then.  I desperately wanted to have the greenhouse, but it seemed beyond rescue; rebuilding it was really the only option.  So, for five weekends last May, I totally played the pregnancy card and got my video-gaming hubbie outside and wielding a hammer.  I must say, building a greenhouse was a truly daunting task at first, but I couldn’t believe how easily it proceeded once we got started.  Here’s how.

Once we tore out the old structure, we realized there was a lot of rot at the base of the back wall, which is just the south-facing exterior wall of the neighbor’s garage.  Soil and debris from the greenhouse was actually mud-sliding into the garage.  Our quick fix: a retaining wall, so to speak, of 1960’s orange shag carpet (pulled out of the house basement during the home improvement blitz of the previous months).  Really, we nailed a length of carpet to the garage wall and dug the soil out several feet and replaced it on top the carpet layer.  Will it hold forever?  No, but seeing as this property is due to be redeveloped in the near future, this is impermanent permaculture.

For those who have no building experience whatsoever you cannot simply build a cube of 2’x4’s; it will not stand straight.  Any structure will be more sturdy with some cross bracing (like when you put those two metal rods on the back of an IKEA shelf).  Sounds obvious, but we were surprised by how strong our structure felt after adding a few angled pieces of wood here and there.  Also, using screws would probably be the strongest, but we went for the ease of hammer and nails.  The glass pieces were framed in with narrow pieces of wood on the outside and finishing nails inside.  The door was made from a frame found under the back porch stairs (stashed there years ago by Frank, I presume) and an old plastic shower curtain.  The cherry on top: on the final day of building, while I took a break with Eleanor at the park, Stephen laid a beautiful stone path, put in the retaining boards and back-filled with soil so that it was all done when I returned!

Besides a lot of hard work, this greenhouse cost us next to nothing.  Mostly we were able to just use materials we found on site: glass, wood, door frame, shower curtain, stone pavers, blue paint, and corrugated plastic (for a ceiling vent that can be raised and lowered).  The only items we purchased were three  12 ft. long 2″x4″s, a bag of nails, and hinges for the door.  After the $30 Rona gift card from my mom and step-dad, we spent a grand total of $3.37 on this greenhouse!

The greenhouse after rebuilding.

In its first year, our greenhouse housed a load of basil, four eggplants, four pepper plants, and two incredibly prolific heritage tomatoes.  We tried growing Maw-Maw’s okra, but after seeming to transplant okay, all the plants just failed to thrive.  They hung on and on and slowly lost leaves despite regular waterings.  I think we got a single 2″ okra pod!  Oh well!  Building the greenhouse was well worth it just for the experience of figuring it out as we went along.

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Canning Experiments 2011

December 4, 2011 at 5:48 am (DIY, food, Gardening) (, , , )

Home preservation of food was beginning to look like a lost art… until the recent upsurge in homesteading and DIY skill sets.  I’m certainly not immune to the trend, but home canning also holds a uniquely fond place in my heart.  Ever since I can remember, my grandmother has grown and canned all her own tomatoes, green beans, and fruits for making jams (in addition to all the veggies for fresh eating and for freezing).  As a kid, I sometimes got to help her snap beans or shuck corn or mash strawberries.  What I didn’t know was that those were already foreign experiences to most of my peers (80’s kids).

When I grew up and moved to another state for university, I had to face life without Maw-Maw jelly for the first time.  Having tried store-bought, I gave up on PB&J’s for a long time because nothing quite compared.  I know the difference isn’t just that Maw-Maw picked her berries at their ripest and used only natural ingredients in her jams; it’s also the memory of picking and cooking with her and the very familiarity to me of her land.  Now, I’m continuing the tradition in my own home… and my family’s loving the results!

Last year (2010) I found a hot water bath canning set at The Salvation Army on 12th (I love their bargain basement!) and got started canning right away.  My first attempts at jam included a tart tayberry delight that spread beautifully over Sunday morning french toast and a thick blueberry-rhubarb jam we like to call “bluebarb.”  The rhubarb came from the front yard and the berries came from a U-Pick in Richmond, so not only was everything local and fresh, but we had a great time picking at the farm!  On our way back from the U-Pick, we stopped and bought about twenty pounds of dill cukes and I made so many jars of delightfully garlicky dill pickles that I’ve still got several quarts a year and a half later.  Also, I made a mango chutney when organic mangoes were cheap at the supermarket.  At least they were in season!

This year I’ve discovered that Canadian Tire sells everything you need for home-canning, so I finally picked up the accessories I had to do without last year–jar tongs (very helpful!), wide-mouth funnel, and a magnetic wand for lifting rings and lids out of hot hot water.  I attended a salsa-canning workshop this summer to learn more and ask some questions, like “Why did two of my jars bust when processing my tomatoes?”  Answer: imperfections in new glass, chips in old glass, cold contents were added to hot jars, hot contents were added to cold jars, jars touched while in the bath, or some combination of these factors.  The class was very informal, hosted by a foodie neighbor and really just a great time gabbing with some friendly ladies.  I left with a recipe for canning peaches that sounds amazing; I can’t wait to try it next year!

This year, despite being hugely pregnant then having a newborn strapped to my chest five or six hours a day, I managed to prep and process the following:

  • 8 1/2 pint jars tayberry jam (U-pick berries)
  • 8 1/2 pint jars bluebarb jam (U-pick berries and garden rhubarb)
  • 7 pints peaches in light syrup (Farmer’s Market peaches)
  • 4 1/2 pint jars grape jelly (our neighbors have a grape vine)
  • 4 1/2 pint jars plum preserves (plum trees in our backyard)
  • 5 jars of various sizes diced German Red Strawberries (our favorite heirloom tomato)
  • 3 quart jars oven-roasted tomato sauce (from homegrown German Red Strawberries)
  • 10 pints applesauce (from fruit scavenged along 17th Ave. at Clark Dr.)
  • 5 1/2 pint jars roasted green tomato salsa (the last tomatoes from our garden)

Wow!  Looking at that list, I’m rather impressed with my efforts this year.  Of course, nothing quite compares to the sense of satisfaction seeing those colorful jars lined up on my kitchen shelves.  And, every time I open a new jar of jam or cook with my home-canned tomato sauce, I’m pleasantly reminded of Vancouver’s gorgeous but too-short summer.

For pictures of this year’s canning successes (and one failure), click here.

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