Chicken Indignation

image2There they are: The Fifth-Acre Farm Flock all grown up, peacefully cohabiting in their chicken fortress made for six, each laying an egg a day in the wide variety of shades for which we so carefully selected the breeds.

Just kidding. It’s actually more like this. Since the Great Chicken Integration thatImage-1 Wasn’t, the three older hens have ruled the run while the three younger ones cower on the roost inside the coop, daring to come down only to eat and drink, daring to go out only when Mavis the Big Black-and-White Barred Rock Bully comes in.

We were told many things about integrating the flocks. One was to wait until they were the same size as the older hens. The other was to wait until they were all laying. We were forced to go with the first option because they outgrew their crib coop, but in hindsight, I would have waited until they were all laying, if for no other reason then they become much more docile and easier to catch. None of them is laying yet, so we are still chasing them around the yard or sneaking up on them to get them back inside the coop after free-ranging time.

FullSizeRenderWell, all except Belle, the black one. She is just as sweet as pie. Chicken pot pie. Kidding. But she lets us hold her. She lets Alistair hug her. She whines when she is away from her sisters. She’s gentle and dim. And she is very clearly not a Silver-Laced Wyandotte, which is what we ordered. Granted, the chicks look very similar,IMG_4331 with that beautiful black eyeliner, but once her pin feathers grew in there was no variation in color. I finally did some research and surmised that she must be a Black Australorp, which is almost as fun to say as “Wyandotte.” But then I took to the Backyard Chickens forum tonight and was told that she is a Jersey Giant. Uh. OK. But we’ll keep her. She’s our favorite. I know you’re not supposed to play favorites, and we love Molly and Emily, but Belle is the best, and apparently a beast.

JubileeOrpingtonEmily, the purported Buttercup, is also turning out to be something other than we thought. This isn’t her. She’s camera shy. She is also mottled white and brown, though, rather than gold and black, like Buttercups, so I think she is an English Jubilee Orpington. Who knew there were so many varieties of Orpingtons!!?? Well, now we have two. Molly is a straight-up Buff Orpington. We got one right!

So now I guess we wait out the integration until they are all laying and image1hope for no more surprises. Nate tried to lock them all in the run today and force them to get along, but much of the time it looked like this, big chickens merrily going about their seed feeding frenzy, littles huddled by the pop hole door. The problem with this tactic is denying the big girls access to the nest boxes, so when I opened the door and let everyone out to free range, which they do separately, in groups of three and two (Mavis the Maverick is a loner these days), Mavis ran in to lay with a few extra jabs at the littles and some loud squawking to let me know she literally could not even.

Mavis is also the alpha. She is the top of the pecking order. The Mama Hen. And she’s a big backyard bully. Lady and Millie could care less that there are three new ladies who lay. They take their occasional jabs, but nothing like Mavis. She chases them around, corners them, won’t let them near the food. I actually came home one day and Nate had out her in time out. She was alone in the babies’ old crib coop with some straw, food, and water, thinking about what she had done wrong…

Yeah. So, each night we lovingly pry the little claws of the younger three from the nest boxes and place them between the big girls on the coop roost, hoping familial bonds will grow overnight, that one day Mavis will be their protector, that nobody else fucking molts and stops laying for a month, blowing feathers all over the yard—wait, where was I? Oh yeah. At least none of them are roosters.

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Inch by Inch, Row by Row

IMAG0203“Gonna make this garden grow. All it takes is a rake and a hoe,” and compost and fertilizer, and the perfect balance of rain and sun, and pollinators, and a temperate climate, and time to weed, either ground irrigation or an effective hose, oh, and magic. That’s all it takes!

After the pure luck of last year’s incredible abundance, I had hoped this year’s garden would be even better. However, as many growers know, there are innumerable factors that contribute to the success of your crops, and some of the challenges we have faced this year have been beyond our control.

IMAG0036This is what the garden looked like at the beginning of May. Remember May? It was cold and dry. So was the garden. We transplanted our broccoli, beet, tomato, and cabbage seedlings the last week in April, but look at the intrepid little bean sprouts! We direct-seeded those.

And therein lies the first mistake. We direct-seeded most of our crops this year and they either took too long to germinate and didn’t thrive because it was cold or they are still growing, but at a snail’s pace, and to an unknown extent. Last year we either started more plants inside or got seedlings from Winslow Farm. This year, I wanted to try growing from seed, and several plants just didn’t make it, like the spinach. It started going to seed when it was still only two inches tall! I have never seen anything like it. Other plants, like the golden beets above, are still very small. Although they seem healthy, I don’t think they are really taking root, unlike the bull’s blood beets.IMAG0217 While not as big as the chioggia beets from last year, these guys and their greens are delicious! But, we started them inside in March.

There are two notable direct-seed successes: the radishes and the beans. This is what theIMAG0202 beans looked like in June. This bean trellis is actually three trellises nailed together, by the way. My original plan was to build another bean fort for Alistair, but after last year’s epic bush-bean fort FAIL, I decided on something a little more functional and aesthetically pleasing. I put this together myself, and I am honestly proud of my creativity and my handiwork. There are four different varieties of pole beans planted at the base of the two supporting trellises, one of which is purple! I am big on purple this year: purple haze carrots, purple basil, purple beets, purple beans, and purple radishes.IMAG0102

OK, not really. But aren’t our radishes lovely? They grew so quickly I thought I could do another round and practice the subtle art of succession planting, but alas, the weather shifted, and we got just this one crop.

When the weather changed we got massive amounts of rain. I think it was like every otherIMAG0128 day for a month, but I am prone to exaggeration. I can’t make this stuff up, though: We have apples! Look at these beauties! I was told by people who know fruit that we shouldn’t expect any for the first year. Well, we have two whole apples and a handful of raspberries on the way. Thank you, rain! Then our soil became incredibly compacted. Thank you, rain!

Soil compaction can’t really be called a mistake, but not properly maintaining our soil to avoid compaction definitely can. Soil compaction is usually caused by machinery, but guess what else can do it? Animal feet. OK, I can’t rightfully blame three chickens, either, but I smiled wryly at this fact. Soil compaction can also happen when there is a lack of water in the soil. Because of the frigid and terrible winter we endured (NOT an exaggeration), our compost froze solid instead of staying warm at the core, so we had very little finished compost. We also did not properly aerate the soil. Next year, I am totally using a broad fork, an ancient and simple agricultural tool that the farmers at Winslow swear by. Actually, next year, I think we are going to get rid of the raised beds and finally grow in the earth. Like I said, though, I exaggerate.IMAG0227

But it’s not a total loss. We have these nasties—I mean lovelies—beautiful and edible additions to any salad or Mason jar bouquet.

IMAG0239And these guys, too.

Our tomatoes are still green, but there is a ton of fruit on all six plants. They seem to be getting a little early blight, but nothing like last year. The blight is only on the lower leaves and not on the fruit at all. We have sauce tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. If we really do plant in the ground next year, I will try big beefsteak ones.IMAG0241

Some crops, like the potatoes and squash in the hugelkultur mound, are loving life. Permaculture is working for us here. We have already harvested some potatoes and the summer squash is finally starting to grow. I wake up every morning to the beauty of squash blossoms in our “mystery squash” among the corn rows, the pumpkins, and the zucchini, but with nothing yet to pick.

Unfortunately I think this is a pollination problem, another problem I cannot solve alone. Sometimes in the very early mornings I will see bumble bees and wasps, cabbage looper moths and dragonflies, but none of the traditional pollinators visit our gardens. We have no honeybees or monarchs. We have no hummingbirds. They have all gone from this land. There has been a 30-percent decline in the honeybee population in this country. Whole hives are disappearing or dying. Nearly half of this country’s vegetables rely on these industrious workers, and they are simply not there. This trend is directly related to the neonicotinoids found in common pesticides. These chemicals cause paralysis and death in insects, including many insects crucial to growing and sustaining food production. While these pesticides kill damaging insect populations, they are also creating a bee genocide. We are still in the stage where this can be reversed, and we CAN do something about it. Next year, our project is beekeeping. You can bet I will have much more to say on this particular subject.

IMAG0270In the meantime, I leave you with the current state of our little farm. We have tiny cucumber genitalia. We have herbs galore. We have flowers. We have hope.

Crib to Coop

_DSC0010The chickens have a new crib. Like, literally.

These photos were actually taken two weeks ago, so the ladies have changed and grown into awkward teenagers since then, but when these were taken they were at least big enough to have outgrown their cardboard box condo in the kitchen.IMAG0117

Nate had the brilliant idea to repurpose Alistair’s old crib into a temporary coop for the littles until they are the same size as the bigs and we can officially merge the flock.

He wrapped the crib in chicken wire and put a removable screen over the top. The crib is now in the garage over a cardboard bottom covered in pine shavings. There is even a roost, which they recently figured out and actually even sleep on instead of on top of their food.

_DSC0005This is them during their first excursion to the outdoors. Their first taste of freedom! Their first taste of grass! They were frozen in fear for much of it, but they have since grown accustomed to their changing world.

Belle, Molly, and Emily are now nearly seven weeks old, which makes them officially pullets. We got our other three girls at eight weeks. We still have another maybe four weeks before we’ll be able to introduce them, but there has been some interIMAG0130action—namely beaks exploring through chicken wire and one notable eye poke. I can’t even imagine trying to keep track of all six of them as they free range around the yard in their little supervised visits to the compost heap.

Nonetheless, I do hope all six of them remain ladies. Supposedly we won’t be able to tell for sure for a few more weeks. At this point, there is nothing shiny or pointy about their feathers, and combs and waddles are all small and cute. None of them exerts a particularly commanding personality either, though Belle is certainly the most intelligent, brave, and personable. She will give Queen Mavis a run for her throne.

House of Leaves

_DSC0607

Did you ever read that book? House of Leaves is this epic, labyrinthine tome with intertwining stories about a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Think Escher staircases and doors that appear out of nowhere. Well, that’s how our yard feels right now. We only have the one-fifth acre, but we keep planting and stuff just keeps growing. In about a month this place is going to be covered in trailing vines escaping the confines of the raised beds, volunteer sunflowers that sprout in far-flung corners, and vegetables getting too big for their britches.

Pollination

Let’s start at the beginning with these guys. They are much more plentiful this year. Yay pollinators! With the plight of bees and migrating butterflies foremost in growers’ minds, it is a welcome sight in the middle of spring to see them darting from dandelion to dandelion. I am not a big aesthetic grower. I tend to plant for function, but my mother has a wonderful eye for landscaping and flowers, so I kind of let her have her way with the flower beds this year, focusing on attracting pollinators. We planted lemon sunflowers and nasturtiums (which are also edible!), in addition to our returning perennials like cone flower and orange and yellow daisies.

Lilacs

Also, it’s just about peak bloom for lilacs, my favorite flower in the world. I missed these like I missed the ocean in Texas. Mountain Laurel was a lovely second scent, but nothing compares to the rich purple and elegant white blossoms that sweeten the air in late spring.

Cressida and Remay

So now on to veg. We planted early this year, the first weekend in May, and the weekend of the last frost, according to the Farmers’ Almanac. Yeah, sorry farmers. We got a frost last weekend, too. Good thing I covered my beds! With uncharacteristic forethought I ordered these cool hoops and reemay cloth as row covers this year. Since I planted so many things from direct seed I wanted to protect them from heavy rain while also keeping out frost and retaining moisture. The reemay seems to have accomplished all of these things. This is Cressida, which is a leafy salad green and the first to germinate this year. We water the beds at night and cover them, then remove the cloth around 9-9:30 a.m. after the sun is high and the air is warm(er). I think we can finally stop covering the beds this weekend (Memorial Day), which is the traditional planting day for this region. I jumped the gun.

Seaweed mulch

We are also experimenting with mulch this year. At the farm where I volunteer most everything is started in greenhouses and transplanted with fertilizer, compost, and leaf mulch on top. We used a composted seaweed mulch last year, but I figured seaweed is abundant enough around here, so I brought some home fresh from the beach and managed to cover one row of brassica. You have to wash the salt off first, and then it dries pretty quickly. These starts have grown quite a bit in the past week. I don’t know if it’s the seaweed or the gorgeous weather, though.

Leaf mulch

Another kind of mulch we have in abundance is composted leaf mulch mixed with a healthy helping of hay and hen poop. Sorry, I couldn’t think of a word for poop that starts with ‘h.’ I spread this around our shrubs, apple trees, raspberry bushes, and some of the new seedlings, like this cucumber start. It looks pretty from far away and should help retain moisture in the soil, but since the chickens spend most of their precious little free-range time in the compost pile, they now think the entire yard is the compost pile. I left them alone for a few minutes to clean the coop this afternoon only to return to my artfully flung mulch scattered around the yard in less decorative piles.

Hugelkultur

Nate is experimenting with a kind of permaculture planting called “hugelkultur” this year. In theory it ends up looking like a cute Hobbit hill elegantly covered in rich flora, but which is really some rotten logs piled high with compost and dirt. So it’s not pretty, but it does appear to be working. This is a little summer squash start that popped up the other day. There are some zucchini and potatoes lying dormant at the moment, and the top is planted with watermelon, so we’ll see what happens. The vines may create a natural sculpture we could never have imagined, or else we’ll be untangling the biggest snarl ever.

Corn rows

Finally, we planted corn. This is our first attempt at planting in the ground here. We never had the soil tested, so I was wary, plus it was quite an effort to dig all these rows, but the corn was the one of the first seeds to germinate. This is saying something since many little hands helped plant it. I also planted sunflowers at the end of the rows. We have four rows about six feet long with seeds planted every six inches. With any luck come late summer we could have quite the maze on our front lawn behind our fledgling apple trees (which have blossoms!). Now if only the chickens were weedetarians.

Peepers, Inside and Out

Spring. Finally. It’s the middle of May and the homestead is once again teeming with new life: seedlings, flowers, green grass, the thrum of insect and amphibian lust, and, most importantly, baby chickens.

IMAG0009 Meet the three newest members of the Fifth Acre Farm flock, just five days old and already filling our hearts and our kitchen with their little peeps and their little poops.

Despite my son’s waning fascination with trains, these three also have Thomas and Friends namesakes. Molly is the yellow Buff Orpington, who was the first to figure out the roost. She’ll be intelligent, all feather and no fat. Belle is the one with the goth eye liner, a Silver-Laced Wyandotte whom I am told will be the big-boned bully of the flock when she comes of age. IMG_4331Emily is the wee brown lass, a Buttercup, who will be gentle and dim-witted, much like our other beloved lighter-bodied breed, Millie the Araucana. Once they are all laying, we’ll have three beige eggs, one white, one brown, and one green. It should be quite the palette.

Now, if you recall, even with started pullets we ended up with a dude last year, Rosie the Roosterer, so this new Buff Orpington was free from the farm in exchange for their error. However, there is no sex guarantee (is there ever?) with day-olds, so we are sending massive feminine energy into their cardboard box because there is no returning a rooster this time. We have a 90% guarantee of their ladyhood, but there is no real way to determine sex at this stage, especially if they look like this one.

IMAG0005

Or this one.IMAG0013

OK, so those are not true likenesses. (Portraits by Nate Wellin of Spelling Dog Gallery)

So we will watch them grow, quickly, and thrive. They have to be kept at about 90° for several weeks, so we have an infrared heat lamp above the box, affixed to a beam so the heat doesn’t come close to the cardboard. Food (Blue Seal’s Home Fresh Starter Medicated Meal) and water are on the floor of the box, which is covered with the same pine shavings with which we line the coop. Nate built the cutest roost for them out of a narrow dowel, and even a ramp leading to it in case they couldn’t figure out how to perch.

They’ll have to be kept inside for about four weeks, and then we should be able to bring them outdoors. It will be summer by then and warm, though they’ll be in that awkward teenage chicken phase of losing baby feathers and growing adult ones, their voices cracking, their hen hormones raging.

Since we can’t immediately integrate the flocks, Nate is going to section off part of the run for them, as well as build another mobile run, like we did with the other three hens. I’m not sure where their coop will be at this point, but it will have to be in the garage as well until they are the same size, or even until they are all laying, and they can share the big coop. Apparently the best method is to just put the three new hens on the roost in the big coop at night, and when they wake up in the morning the three older hens will think the three newbies have always been there. Chickens are that open-minded. Or small-minded…

Anyway, we are loving holding the babies or watching Chicken TV as they fall asleep every ten minutes on their feet, slowly falling face-first into their food or into one another’s tail feathers, or snuggled on top of each other in the corner as the peepers outside sing spring songs to their new mates and life begins anew.

Welcome to the Fifth Acre Farm!

I am still working with the city on permitting and zoning, but perhaps, with any luck, this sign will welcome neighbors and new friends to the Fifth Acre Farm farm stand in the near future! (Huge thanks to Nate Wellin of Spelling Dog Gallery for the custom work.)Fifth Acre Farm Sign

The Earth Day 365 Project

I have decided to make this little endeavor a strictly social media experiment and keep this blog separate for homesteading and urban farming activities because after six whole days, I realized it is too much work to post here, whereas with one click I can post on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. How’s that for a modern-day problem? Oh, I can’t be bothered to write an entire extra post every single day! Obviously, since my posts here ended on Day 2.

Seriously though, homesteading and urban farming are ways in which I am helping the planet, but I can’t rely on these activities every day for a year for my Earth Day 365 posts. Please follow me on social media for Earth Day 365 and consider joining this movement of one!

Look for baby chick posts coming here soon…

Every day is Earth Day. Spread the word.

Every day for the next 365 days, until Earth Day rolls around again, I will be posting a photo of how I am helping the planet. This is not a nationally recognized challenge. In fact, I made it up. But it’s worth doing and it’s worth sharing. In addition to my other blog posts about the successes and epic fails (bush peans for the pole bean fort) of our little farm, I will be posting the photos here as well as on Facebook. Care to join me? #earthday365

Day 1

The Microbe Gang

_DSC0050Like I said, it was a long winter. I had to get pretty creative with my indoor projects. Luckily at my son’s school they are working on a year-long restaurant project for which they made pickles, so he wanted to try it at home.

_DSC0052I wish I could say that these _DSC0054 were cucumbers from our garden, but alas they are organic English cucumbers from Trader Joe’s, not even the variety recommended for pickling, but they were to hand, and good for practice.

This particular recipe called for fresh dill, something I also wish I could say I plucked from my own herb garden, but that too will have to wait. Since this is dried dill it looks like shit ton of it. After two weeks of allowing the microbes to do their work, we produced delicious, if somewhat salty, pickles, of which Alistair is very proud. He considers himself captain of the Microbe Gang. He even knows what they look like under a microscope (Thank you Magic Schoolbus).

I look forward to canning our own vegetables and getting back to fermenting. Next up, kombucha, take two.