Thursday, September 22, 2016

How Volkswagen is Helping us Repay the Planet for Its Sins - Part 1

2013 was a big year for me. Jay and I bought our first home together. I got a new hip. I turned 42, which for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fans IS significant). And after a year and a half of research, more than a dozen test drives and lots of talking with people, Jay and I bought a Volkswagen Golf TDI. It's a diesel, EPA 40 mpg and on long trips we get close to 42-43. The big deal about this car is that VW promoted this as a "clean diesel" that got good MPG, very nice performance and clean emissions, something that hadn't been available in a consumer vehicle.
I bought a new 2013 VW Golf TDI thinking I'd keep it for
20 years. Now we're figuring out what to replace it with.

Then last September the truth came out - VW lied. They had rigged the software in their engines to fib about the emissions when the car was being tested, but then programmed to burn inefficiently when running, releasing 40 times the nitrous oxide than the EPA allows. Not 4 times, not 10 times, 40 times. They said they were sorry. They sent us a $500 Visa gift card for Christmas. And last month, they offered to buy the car back. Since our vehicle is relatively new (a 2013) and only has 40,000 miles, we got a fair buyback offer and we took it.

Sometime this November, at the same VW dealership where we bought the car, we'll sell it back to them. They'll send a check to pay off the loan to the bank and give us a check for the difference. And then, we'll have a decision to make. Buy another car? Keep the windfall? 

We decided to make lemonade, a lot of lemonade, out of this literal lemon. I'll let you know how tasty it is in another blog entry. 

Chicken Drives Around Our Back Yard

Since about Day 2 of having chickens, the idea of a chicken tractor has always intrigued me. Chicken tractor? First, take any notion of 4-wheeled farm machinery out of your head. Replace it instead with a lightweight, rectangular enclosure, covered with netting and a tarp and two wheels on one end that is the daytime playground for a small flock of chickens. 

The idea is that the tractor is moved around the yard where the chickens eat grass and bugs, poop a bit and enjoy the outdoors while staying put in the yard and protected from overhead hawk attacks. Because the chickens do eat a lot of the vegetation and scratch at the grass, the tractor needs to be moved daily so they don't destroy the lawn. Thus, each day they are fed, fertilize and mow the lawn, are exposed to the sun and have something new and interesting to do each day. Chickens, like any creature, need diversion as well.

Our flock of five in their new tractor.
By virtue of being lightweight, the tractor is fundamentally NOT ground-predator proof. A racoon, possum, ferret, fox or any other carnivorous predator could easily break into the tractor's light netting to have chicken dinner. But, since these predators are mostly nocturnal, the tractor is safe for the chickens during the day. Daytime predators include hawks, and the netting and tarp prevent raptor attacks. This means that the girls have to be moved (lured, cajoled, chased, treated and sometimes carried) from their safe night quarters (our chicken coop) to the tractor each morning and in the evening, they need to be moved (exhorted, wheedled, tantalize, treated and sometimes carried) back to the coop. 

As I designed the tractor, I wanted it to have multiple uses. In permaculture terms, this is called stacking functions, where the same object can be used for many purposes (functions).

The first function is obvious: the tractor provides an alternate place for the chickens to spend the day, which offers greens and bugs to eat. We have a long, narrow run along the side of our house and in the spring it's rich with weedy vegetation. But it doesn't take them long to mow it down to nothing but dirt, thistles and mint, which they don't seem to care for.

The next function is that chickens mow the grass. Literally, we don't have to mow the lawn any more. The 5'x8' size is large enough to travel around the entire yard in about two weeks, and small enough that the five chickens clip the grass down in one day.
One day of the chickens "mowing" the lawn. It's pretty obvious, you might even says shocking. But the
grass seems to bounce back very quickly after a one-day chicken clip.
But I wanted even more stacking functions (multiple uses) than lawn mowing and grass food for the chickens. One of the things I've always wanted to do was confine the chickens to our raised garden beds after the harvest, where they would eat fallen fruit and bugs, scratch the soil and deposit their poo exactly where we want it. So I built the chicken tractor to the same dimensions of our garden beds: 5 feet wide and 8 feet long. Our beds are 16 feet long, so this will be easy to set on the bed sides and move from bed to bed, allowing the chickens to do what chickens do best, make a mess while enclosed in their tractor.

But there were possibilities for yet more stacking functions. I reused a lot of materials that I had around the house, garage and garden. In fact, all I had to buy were three 2x4 boards (two 8-foot boards and one 10-foot board that I cut in half), and hardware such as hinges, latches and screws. With that, I made the tractor out of hoop house materials I had on hand. When the chickens move into their coop for the winter, I'll remove the tractor's nest box and shade tarp, throw some plastic over the hoops and plant spinach under it in October or November. Under that hoop house the spinach will germinate and grow, then stall in the winter, and start again very early in the spring. We'll have March and April spinach, well before our CSA will start delivering springtime greens.

AND, because I LOVE stacking functions, I won't plant spinach in one corner of the hoop house. In the winter I will start seeds in the basement under grow lights. In March or early April, I move them to a low hoop house next to the house where I keep extra watch on them, and heat as necessary with seedling mats. Once the weather moderates and the plants are heartier, but not ready to be planted, and have outgrown the low hoop house, I'll move them to this larger, taller hoop to harden off and get big before the chickens occupy it again in late spring.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Last Day of Marge's Garden

When Jay and I moved into our Madison east side neighborhood and I started to build an orchard in our front yard, several people told me about Marge's garden, an illicit, stealth, guerrilla garden on public land, supposedly very near our block. For several years I looked in the general direction that people told me or pointed toward, but I never saw this Brigadoon of a garden. One morning while waiting for the Enterprise car rental office to open (also JUST down the street from our house), I walked behind the building to do a more thorough examination of the area where people told me the house was. You can read more about my discovery.

In late August, as my nieces, nephew and I walked to a beach on Lake Monona, I noticed a bulldozer and several City of Madison workers leveling Marge's garden. They knocked down the field of walking onions, flattened the raised beds and picked through the dirt to remove all the figurines, pots, and rotted wood that had once served as Marge's furniture, garden borders, etc. My nieces and nephew were indifferent—they didn’t have any attachment to the place, but I stopped to take a quick snapshot of the project. 
My nieces and nephew were beach bound -
but I took a moment to reflect on the end of Marge's Garden.

I was saddened by the destruction of the garden. It felt like we hadn't given it a proper goodbye. Ideally, some people might have gathered to remember Marge, maybe take one of the pots, or figurines, or a walking onion for their garden, and then let the City workers flatten it. I'm not saying that it didn't need to go. Trees had grown up and mostly shaded the garden, no one was caring for it, and it won't be long before the Public Market District takes its place. 

No, all I am saying is that I would have liked to say goodbye to it before the bulldozers erased its existence, and maybe, just maybe, we could have gotten some interest in a little plaque. You know, one of those historical plaques stuck to a nice granite stone that said something like this:

In the late 20th Century, Marge started a guerrilla garden here, growing food where there was nothing more than turf. Tucked between the City of Madison Fleet Services building and a wastewater pumping station, for years no one noticed or everyone looked away and no harm was done, but much food was grown. We remember Marge and her many years of illicit and innocent gardening and those inspired by her.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

I'm supposed to like these, and I do!

With tongue firmly in cheek, as a permaculture designer, there are some things I'm supposed to like because they are good for me, the environment or the soil. They are, to name a few:

A cluster of berries after (or was it during?) a recent rain.

  • Comfrey
  • Yarrow
  • Josta berries
  • Nettles
  • Lambs quarters
I will write some highly judgmental commentary in a future blog post. For now, though, I'd like to introduce you to one more that seems to come up in permaculture conversation - aronia. It's a dark blue/purple berry that has the unfortunate common name of chokeberry. I don't hear people say "I'll have a chokeberry pie for dessert" very often.

Indeed, the fresh berry is tart, "dry," even a little astringent. In fact, here's an entire article about how they taste. At first I found them to be as described, dry (not moisture, but the mouth feel) and a little bitter.

But after eating them a handful at a time over a few days, I started to enjoy the flavor. This bush, planted in our front yard four years ago, had been slated to be moved this autumn to my community garden orchard (where all things I don't want end up). But after munching on the berries for a few days, I've now decided to keep the bush. And then there's the "good for me" argument.

Apparently these babies are loaded with good stuff, including lots of antioxidants.

I got just a few cups of berries off the bush this year. I froze them on a cookie sheet and then put them in a resealable bag. My plan is to add a few to smoothies throughout the winter. 

Bottoms up.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Rats #9: Good Riddance at the Eggplant

Jay, Matt and I set aside a summer Saturday afternoon to once and for all get rid of the remaining rat. I had purchased a pack of four smoke bombs and a large bucket of poison blocks that were developed to kill rats resistant to blood-thinning poisons mentioned in Rat #4: biology basics, what’s in rat poison and UW-Madison.

The first thing we did was take a close look at the situation. The rats had done a lot of excavation from under the coop storage area and around our garage. As they dug tunnels under the coop, they moved a large amount of sand, gravel and wood chips into a three-inch space between the coop and the side of our house. When peering into this small, dimly-lit space, we could see excavation piles and the entrance to at least one tunnel.
Excavation around loose soil around our garage.
The rat moved a lot of gravel from
under the coop to make tunnels.

Excavation and tunnel entrances inside the run.

In the run (that’s the screened in porch area) we found two tunnels with some excavation as well. Looking inside the storage area we didn’t find any evidence of holes or other damage. (In the spring we did have a mouse infestation in the storage area, but they’re dumb, and I caught five in a 24-hour period with peanut butter-baited mouse traps.)

Next, we put our heads together to figure out how to catch and kill the rat. Matt set a live trap up at one entrance to the three-inch space between the coop and the house. I blocked the other side of the space. Then we covered one of the tunnel holes with a rock and lit a smoke bomb and put it into the tunnel.
I like the brand name...

The smoke bombs can do two things; chase the critter out (into our live trap) or kill it with noxious gas. While I don’t know if it's the same stuff, but when we lit the bomb, it smelled like the same smoke after lighting fireworks. In our case, we flushed the rat out, it suddenly appeared in the run, scampering about in circles until it darted into one of the holes in a cement block that was on its side. The block was pushed up against the foundation of the coop, so there was no exit, and I quickly put a flat shovel in front of the opening.

Got it! Now, what to do? Jay, Matt and I steeled ourselves to kill it. We each had a shovel in hand and prepared (mentally and got ourselves into position) to smash it. It would be a bit gruesome, but it would be done. I moved my shovel and, nothing. I looked in the space and the rat wasn’t there.

We moved the block and saw that there was a tiny hole in the the foundation that the block was next to. The rat had squeezed itself into the hole and was again under the coop. That was maddening.

We lit off two more smoke bombs but never saw it again. We don’t know if the subsequent smoke bombs killed the rat, but we also couldn't figure out how to get to it without moving the entire coop.
So we got out weapon #2, the bucket of poison cubes. We put them in the holes, between the house and the coop, and for extra measure, I put them in some somewhat sheltered areas around our garage.

Satisfied that we had made the environment inhospitable (smoke bombs, closed up tunnels, and lots of disturbance) we also committed to removing its food source. We added a hook to the roof of the run and each night when we lock the chickens in (something we do anyway) we also remove the food from it’s low hook and put it up so the rat can’t get to it. In the morning when we let the chickens out, we put the food down again. In this way, we hoped to make our coop a very unpleasant place to stay.

Food at chicken height during the day
The next day I peered between the coop and the house and one of the poison cubes Jay had thrown there was gone. Apparently we didn't kill it with the smoke bomb, and the rat gathered a free meal. Over the next few days I monitored the coop and surrounding area for holes or new tunnels. I also put a rat trap at the entrance of the space between the house and the coop in case it wanted to venture out. We haven’t seen any new evidence of excavation.

Food now hung from the ceiling at
night to remove the rat's food source.
So, in sum, we physically killed one rat, and saw another. After our smoke bomb adventure and adding new poison cubes, we haven’t seen new evidence of the final rat. I think we’re done with our problem, but we have several lessons learned.
  1.  Rats are smart. They won’t fall for the same trap more than once.
  2.  Rats can get through the smallest hole. EVERY hole needs to be sealed up.
  3. We must be vigilant and not nearly as nonchalant as we had been when we first noticed them.
  4.  It’s good to talk with neighbors – Jenny and I formed our own little rat support group to talk about our frustrations with getting rid of them.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Rats #8: The Dirty Secret: Rats in Our Neighborhood

As I said in Rats #1, I first noticed the potential for rat inhabitants in or near our chicken coop and made a half-hearted effort to get rid of them. I did get one right away in a physical trap, but next door neighbor Matt had seen two, and the evidence was clear that the second one was still hanging around. I don’t recall how it started, but shortly after discovering our own rat problem, my two-doors down neighbor, Jenny, stopped over and in a hushed tone asked if we were having any rat issues, and shared that she had them in her compost pile and around her chicken coop.

Jenny may not have actually whispered the news, but we both agreed that rats and chicken coops don’t seem to be talked about much. Jenny knew we were going to be on the Mad City Chicken coop tour in a few weeks, and dared me to bring up the topic of rats and coops as people visited our setup.

In hindsight, it’s interesting to note that in anticipation of the coop tour, Jay and I cleaned out the coop and the run and conveniently wiped out any trace of the rat tunnels in the floor of our run. Even before Jenny’s dare, looks like I didn’t want to talk about rats either, and was quietly going about my business to get rid of them.

On Madison’s news and neighborhood internet sites, there’s been talk about an increase in the rat population on the city’s east side where I live. See this June 14, 2016 story. Some suggest it’s due to increased chicken coops, and from my experience, I can’t deny that’s a likely factor. I did a quick search and found that the best things to do are keep grasses around coops and buildings clipped short enough to expose holes, remove sheltered areas for them to hide like piles of stuff against buildings, removing food sources and thorough extermination programs.

From the June 2016 news article linked to above, Doug Voegeli, Madison Dane County director of environmental health, said "It's not just a single entity that is causing this infestation, it's the whole area that is providing adequate food, adequate water and shelter for these rats." I guess that makes all of us partially responsible if we see evidence or inadvertently provide shelter and don’t do anything about it.

In addition to removing shelter, disturbing hiding places and poison or traps, for those who keep compost piles, it’s important to turn them regularly, disturbing any rat habitation. In fact, now that Jenny and I are talking about rats, we share success stories. She was turning her compost pile and found a nest of five babies and she was rather proud of herself for dispatching them.

In the next and final entry in this series about rats I’ll detail how three grown men using smoke bombs, shovels, traps and poison took care of our rat problem at The Eggplant.

Rats #9: Good riddance at The Eggplant

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Rats #7: Disease vectors throughout history

Since the Great Plague, after which the Black rat (rattus rattus) was ruthlessly hunted and killed off in millions, this species has declined to near non-existence in Europe, though it still thrives in the USA and Africa. The Brown rat (rattus norvegicus) – just as big a disease carrier, didn’t arrive in Europe until the 18th century. 

They are also excellent swimmers and may have entered new regions through self-propelled swimming. The naturalist Pallas reportedly saw great hordes of Brown rats swimming across the Volga river in 1727, from the Asian to the European side, arriving in modern-day Russia. Migrating rats can swim up to half a mile and survive by treading water for three days. Brown rats are more aggressive creatures than their black counterparts and quickly established their superiority all over Europe.
The Volga River, site of a massive rat crossing from Asia to Europe. Image labeled for reuse.
Rats may well like to live in waste dumps and sewers but they are not naturally dirty creatures and are highly intelligent. In many ways it seems that humanity’s war on them is very one sided. Untold millions of rats are ruthlessly exterminated by us, yet the same cannot be said of them where we are concerned. Each time in history that some kind of plague has broken out, rats became the fall guys. During the Byzantine dynasty there occurred the ‘Plague of Justinian’ where up to 10,000 people a week were dying.

The fact is that rats themselves rarely succumb to the disease carried by their fleas. But when they do die, the fleas have to look for other bodies, like humans, to live on, which can happen at epidemic proportions. This happened periodically in history as far back as biblical times, and the flea-born disease is especially scary because the rupturing and decay of blood vessels beneath the skin cause it to gradually turn black, hence the "black death."

Labeled for reuse, by Mikael Häggström
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
China experienced Bubonic plague in 1330, from where it was carried west to the Crimea. By 1347 it had reached Europe via seafarers. Before it died down again, from Russia to the Mediterranean Sea 25 million people had died. Some 1,000 villages in England were wiped out by the disease.

The Bubonic plague re-appeared in 1665, when 17,440 people died during the ‘great plague of London,’ and in the 1860’s another outbreak in the Far East led to the deaths of 12,600,000 people all the way across to America. Plague outbreaks weren't limited to early times; Los Angeles had a major outbreak in 1925 and Vietnam saw tens of thousands of cases during the 1960’s. India suffered an outbreak in 1992.

Rats do carry other fatal diseases as well. The Hanta virus, Weil’s disease, Tuberculosis, Listeria and Q fever are all carried by them and easily passed on to humans via household pets. This is one cause for rats being seen as vermin.

In our case, for the most part disease isn't the main cause for concern. It's their constant gnawing and digging that I don't want. And the fact that my very DNA seems to have an aversion to them.

Hats off to where I discovered much of what I know about rats.