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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Just Sold…

April 7, 2012 at 3:49 am (Gardening, permaculture, Vancouver) (, , , )

My post about life in a dying house could not have been more timely.  Soon after writing that piece, in which I mused on the implications of Vancouver’s rapid gentrification and the supreme irony of practicing permaculture on a site slated for commercial redevelopment, I discovered that our property has been sold.

Did my landlord inform me of this?  No, I had to do some sleuthing to tease out the truth.  Some strange things had occurred recently that started to add up to a major tip-off.  First, a few months back, I saw from my kitchen window two men, looking very white-collar, stopped in the backlane; they seemed to be discussing and photographing something in my direction.  I went to get my shoes so I could run out and ask them what they were doing, but when I got outside, they were gone.  I told myself it was the condo building above that they were pointing out, because I didn’t want to think otherwise.

Not long after that, I saw a two-man survey team working in the back lane.  Once again, by the time I got back there, they were walking off around the corner of the far end of the block.  From back inside, I saw them get into a City of Vancouver Engineering Services van, so I told myself they couldn’t have anything to do with a private property deal.  I really wanted to ignore the red flags, because I love this house and I want to live in it as long as possible, even though I know (and have known since signing the lease) that our time here would be limited.

I got really suspicious when, for a third time, I looked out my kitchen window and saw a strange man walking through my garden.  When I asked what he was doing and if he was sent by the company that owns the house, he explained that he was from a third-party “environmental company” checking for a buried heating oil tank.  He was evasive about who sent him but, when pressed for information about the property development process, he indicated that oil tank removal is a prerequisite for obtaining financing.  I assumed this meant that the current owners intended to finally do something with the property.

The following day, I asked the neighbor if he knew what was going on, since our houses are both owned by the same company.  The neighbor said that one of his bums said they saw an ad for our two houses for sale on-line.  I immediately googled it and, sure enough, a realtor’s website came up with a photo of both houses under the banner “Just Sold!”  The price tag?  $1,700,000!

The current landlord says he was going to tell us as soon as the sale went through.  Now I realize the inspection required for financing was not being sought by the current owners for building, it was part of deal to sell the property altogether.  We’ve been told that, even if the new owners want to move right away to demolish and rebuild, it takes at least a year for permits to go through and plans to be approved by the city.  We’ll see what they say in May; that’s when the deal is supposed to close.

In the meantime, I’ll garden like there is a tomorrow.

I placed an order for manure and straw bales to be delivered just days before I discovered that our house was sold. No time to ponder the loss: I'm going to get the most out of this year's garden since it may be the last.

I added a healthy dose of composted manure to the garden beds and a layer of fresh straw to protect the soil surface from compacting and drying out. Already, I've sown seeds for salad greens, carrots, radishes, fennel, spinach, collards, and kale.

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City-Wide Composting: Going Green or Going Backwards?

January 14, 2012 at 11:59 pm (environment, Vancouver) (, , , , , , , , )

A while back, I wrote an article for the Vancouver Observer about an electric composter dubbed the Red Dragon that was on trial at the Vancouver Compost Demonstration Garden.  I talked at length with the Garden’s director, Mike Levenston, about this particular composting appliance and about composting in general, as an effective way to reduce the city’s waste and how the city has handled compost historically.

At the time, the City of Vancouver had just rolled out their kitchen scraps collection program, whereby any resident with yard waste collection service could start including vegetable kitchen scraps in their green bin for bi-weekly curbside pick-up.  The program was supposed to eventually be able to handle meat and dairy products (good, since it isn’t recommended to compost these in a backyard bin), but two and a half years later there’s been no movement to expand.  Also, there was talk about expanding the program to benefit those living in apartments and high-rise condos (where the greatest need for composting en masse exists), but who knows what will come of it.

The city’s kitchen waste collection program is a fine way for the city to appear to be taking a strong stand for the environment, but in fact, accomplishes little.  Mike of City Farmer (the organization that runs the Compost Demonstration Garden) pointed out that the City of Vancouver has actually had a program in place for over twenty years to subsidize residents purchasing black plastic compost bins for their backyards.  Any Vancouver resident can go to the garbage transfer station in South Van and pick one up for just $25 (compared to $75 or more for similar models available at home improvement stores).  If food waste generated by single-family homes is still heading to the landfill in unacceptable quantities, it’s because the city has failed to advertise the subsidization program to maximize its efficiency.  I’ve lived in Vancouver for six years and would never have known, until speaking with Mike, that those black bins you see everywhere are part of a city-wide program.  Obviously, not everyone in the city has outdoor space suitable for composting, but for those who do, on-site composting is a lot better for the environment than increasing the number of diesel-burning collection trucks on the roads.

Thanks to the city’s “eco-density” development plans, more Vancouverites than ever now live in high-rise apartment and condo buildings.  Arguably, residents of high-density areas stand to benefit the most from a compost collection service, since space is a limiting factor in how much compost an on-site system can handle.  But, if rooftop gardens can become a valued asset in residential buildings, why not on-site compost systems?  Even if they’re not planned for and integrated into a building’s design from the start, there’s something to be said for grassroots activism.   Click here for one NYC apartment dweller’s story of how she started an on-site composting program for her building.  When neighbors, Strata counsels and building managements just can’t be swayed, there’s still plenty that you can do to divert your organic waste from the landfill:

First, the object of my visit to the Compost Demonstration Garden, the Red Dragon electric composter, a sleek, modern-looking appliance that eats organic waste and churns out usable compost in under 48 hours–impressive, but Mike and I agreed it seemed silly to use electricity to do a job nature would gladly do for you, albeit a bit slower.

The Bokashi fermentation system is another possibility for condo-dwellers.  The result, however, is not fully composted; food waste still has to be added to an active compost pile, but if you’re a condo-dweller with a community garden nearby or a friend with a compost pile in their yard, the fermentation process will keep food waste odor-free on your balcony until you can deposit it elsewhere.

Last, but certainly not least, composting with worms in compact, odor-free bins.  Vermi-composting, Mike informed me, has also long been a part of the city’s program to encourage residents to compost their own kitchen scraps.  You’d never know it for the lack of information out there, but the City of Vancouver also subsidizes worm bin purchases made through the Vancouver Compost Demonstration Garden.  Included in the low cost of $25 is the ventilated bin, bedding material, worms, a handbook, and a one-hour tutorial to get you started.  In my experience, worms definitely have their food preferences but will eat through most kitchen scraps in a couple weeks.  The bin remains surprisingly odor-free, requires little to no time or effort to maintain, and produces a high-quality fertilizer that can be used to start seeds or give houseplants a boost.  The only drawback is that a single bin is hardly enough to process the kitchen waste of a family of four–we’d need three or four worm bins to handle all our scraps!  (Or a big dog…)

Given that the City already has this subsidization program in place for getting people to compost on their own, I just don’t see the need for trucking kitchen scraps around the lower mainland.  Certainly, there’s no reason why they couldn’t step up the program, advertise it a little, educate city residents about the need for handling some of their waste–just like they bought ad space in all the Skytrain stations before Christmas urging people to “give memories, not garbage.”  Then, they could more effectively deploy collection services in high density areas where the need is greatest and only pick-up items like dairy and meat wastes that can’t be properly handled in a backyard compost system.  Heck, the city could start a Go Vegan campaign and eliminate the need completely, if it really wants to be the “Greenest City in the World.”

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Globalization and Grandmas

October 20, 2007 at 4:48 pm (parenting) (, , , )

These days, especially in Vancouver, it seems just about everyone I know is from somewhere else. In fact, Eleanor is one of the only Vancouverites I know to actually be born here. Since moving to Vancouver, I have met people from all over the world. I used to joke that the bakery where I was working was Canadian-owned but internationally-operated since employees came from places as scattered as the Philippines, Japan, Bosnia, England, the US, and Mexico. This state of affairs is probably exaggerated in Vancouver, as it is a world-class port city, but it is by no means unique to Vancouver. Moving all over the world, or at least across a continent, is a pretty common occurrence in this era of globalization.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Presumably, people didn’t move far from home because they lacked the opportunity or the means to do so. But, I know better. This whole experience of raising a child far from home and family has really made me see the value of grandmas!

When I was a kid, my family was only a thirty-minute car ride from my grandparents’ house. I used to think it was so cool that my brother and I could visit so often, even for trips of a week or more in the summertime. I figured my mom was being really nice to allow us this privilege. Now, I know better: she didn’t do it for us; she wanted some time to herself!

This childcare thing is relentless, especially when you don’t make use of a nanny or daycare. Yes, believe it or not, Stephen and I take full responsibility for Eleanor 24/7. What we really need is a grandma or two. Some grandpas would be nice, too. And, maybe even an aunt or an uncle.

Someone should come up with a meet-up service to match lonely parents in need of a break with lonely empty-nesters whose own children and grandchildren live far away like us.  I’m thinking “Rent-a-Granny” or “Grandma for a Day” or some such business idea.  Any takers?

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