Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Um, really? You laid it there?

Our birds are young, so I give them a bit of leeway when it comes do trying out new things. Take laying eggs. After installing our next box, we added some golf balls to show them where they are supposed to lay similarly shaped items should they have the urge to lay an egg.

Betsy Ross lays greenish eggs

So far, two of our birds have laid eggs. We know one of them thanks to the lovely greenish eggs laid by Betsy Ross, the Americana, also known as as an "Easter egger."

We have found an egg in the middle of the chicken coop on the floor. This one, for example, is not in proximity to any golf balls. Ok, oops, and it hasn't happened again.


Look where I found an egg recently!

We know who laid this egg due to it's color, Prissy is the only brown egger who is currently laying. So, why on the ramp? Our current speculation is that she was laying in the next box when something disturbed here and she scurried out. On her way down the ramp it kinda fell out.

A little evidence to our far-fetched guess as to why this egg was laid on the ramp is that it was broken when I picked it up. The laying process doesn't tend to break eggs, my thought is that she "dropped" the egg on the run and cracked it. 
Prissy, the ramp layer.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Chicken dust bath

Our chicken run floor is made up of a foot of sand and gravel, topped by a few inches of wood chips. There isn't any dirt for them to have a nice dust bath in. Dust bath? Apparently dust is good for their feathers, and helps reduce mites. When we let them out, the chickens often spend a lot of time next to Matt and Marissa's house where there is a nice patch of loose, dry dirt. I enjoyed watching them have some "spa time."

Sunday, December 28, 2014

2015 New Year's Resolution

I haven't been drawn to New Year Resolutions in the past, but I have often been drawn to the idea of doing a project over the course of a year and recording the successes and mishaps along the way. You've seen them, such as the well-known book and movie Julie and Julia where the character aspires to cook all 524 recipes in Child's cookbook in 365 days.

My resolution
Have you seen the poster, "How to build community?" I came across a similar version a year ago and it spoke to me. Actually, it shouted at me and said "Do these things."

So I made several copies of it, put it on the fridge, and haven't done much with it yet. Do you know how hard it is to catch the mail carrier to talk with him or her?

So, in a fit of unbridled enthusiasm, the other day I declared to Jay (and now to you) my intention to tackle this recipe for community building, and you, dear readers, get to join in on the ride. From successes to pitfalls, my goal is to not only do these things, but write about them as well.

"What does this have to do with urban farming?" Everything, as far as I can tell, because nothing I've done so far, from building the orchard to raising chicks to building a coop has been done on my own.  This has all been done in and with the communities around me. So if these wonderful things happened thanks to what I do naturally, what's possible with some actual thought and effort?

Well, let's see.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Chickens in the yard

In September,  I opened the chicken coop door and crouched in it to video the chickens in the run (their screened in porch). I wondered how far out of the way I'd have to get before they scurried past me into the yard. You'll see from the video that it didn't take much space for them to screw up the courage to dart past me! The video was taken in September, but even now in December they love getting out in to the yard. We'll see what happens when we have snow, that will be some entertaining video!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Chicken holiday greetings

Happy Holidays from our coop to yours


Friday, December 19, 2014

When chickens molt

Our chickens are too young to molt - a period of time when they lose their feather and grow in a shiny new coat. When they molt, their bodies put all its work into creating new feathers so the bird stop laying eggs. A friend of mine at work recently stopped by my desk to share something. She buys eggs from a neighbor's daughter. Peg recently received the following explanation of why she won't be getting eggs for a while longer.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas and animals

During the third Sunday of Advent, the sermon was about the Christmas story from the animals' point of view. Who knew the donkey, sheep and cow would have had such opinions about smelly, travel-worn humans moving into their stable. And you'll have to ask them what happened right before the baby Jesus was laid in amongst their food. If you'd like to hear what they thought, the sermon archive is online and I think you'll be rather amused by it. Dec. 14, 2014 sermon.

In addition to the sermon, the Sunday bulletin had a nice quote about animals:
"Animals are reliable, many full of love, true in their affections, predictable in their actions, grateful and loyal. Difficult standards for people to live up to," Alfred A. Montapert.
During the last few months as I've gotten more and more used to and even accustomed to having these four birds, these four lifeforms, in our lives, I've found myself saying "I had no idea how much I'd like them."

When I return home from work, before I step in the house, I go to the coop and visit with them. At this time of year, the day is nearly spent by 4:45 p.m. and the birds are already on their perch getting ready for sleep. I talk with them, pet the bird nearest the window and generally forget about everything else for those moments.

Chickens really are very relaxing to watch and be around.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Christmas with the chickens

As we were building our chicken coop, Matt asked me to add an outlet on the outside of the coop. When asked why, he announced his sincere desire to decorate the coop for Christmas. I immediately added an outlet, and today, we have this. Thanks Matt for decorating!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Blue egg, brown egg

So far two of our chickens are laying eggs, even into these late and short winter days.

As previously announced, Betsy is laying the bluish eggs.

Since then, Prissy has started laying brown eggs. We know it's her because we've caught her in the next box. However, she has also laid eggs in the middle of the coop and in the run. Not sure why, when there are golf balls in the nest box to cue here where to lay! The other two birds might wait until next spring.
The golf balls help teach the chickens where to lay their eggs.
One other way we know the brown egg laying chicken is Prissy is thanks to the following text conversation Jay and I had a few weeks ago. I laughed so hard when this was done, however, Jay was not amused - and won't be that I'm sharing with you now ;)

Wisconsin Garden Expo presentation

Several months ago I submitted a proposal to the Wisconsin Garden Expo for a presentation titled,
"Use permaculture principles to create an urban orchard, store lots of water and build community."

I'm pleased to announce the proposal was accepted. I will present twice at this annual gardening extravaganza:
Saturday, Feb. 14, 4:45 p.m.
Sunday, Feb. 15, 2:15 p.m.

These times may/may not change, but if you're interested in either seeing the presentation or simply going to the Expo, save the date. Here's a recap of what I thought of the expo when I went for the first time last year.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Our first egg!

One of our girls finally delivered an egg! And due to it's greenish tint, we know exactly who's responsible. Betsy Ross, the American,  (also known as an "Easter Egger") is our only chicken who does not lay brown eggs. So Betsy wins the prize for laying the first egg in the flock.

Poultry word of the day: Nest egg: savings (well, not in our case, at least not for awhile!)

It's greenish, so it must be Betsy's!

Betsy is the colorful bird on the right.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

How to get free mulch and help your local waterways at the same time

One of the permaculture principles that I continue to work toward more fully integrating into my garden is to reduce importing energy and materials from outside our property. For the last couple of springs, I have purchased hay bales to use as mulch in the garden. It's locally sourced, and I organize my neighbors to have a large truckload delivered to our block, so it's a fairly efficient and cost-effective way of getting mulch for lots of people.

Still, I've been thinking of how I can use what I have or can get my hands on locally that will serve the same purpose. This weekend I found a great source of mulching material that is nearby and easy to gather. You of course know of the "manna from the sky" that happens in the autumn, as the leaves fall to the ground. However, our backyard doesn't have a lot of trees, and our neighbors leaves mostly fall into their yards.

But as I looked around my street, I noticed that some of my neighbors were piling their leaves on the curb to be collected by the city. I also saw a lot of leaves in the gutters, just waiting for a rain to wash them in the storm sewers and out into our lakes. Here in Madison, we have a "Don't leaf our lakes" campaign to encourage people not to put leaves in the gutters because they add significant source of pollution to our lakes.

So this afternoon in about an hour, I accomplished to wonderful things; I easily collected a lot of leaves that had gathered in the gutters, and for my small part, remove these from the potential of washing into the lakes.

I found it very easy to rake leaves into piles right there in the gutters. Way easier than raking the lawn! Some of the leaves were a little wet, and I had to scrape them off the pavement, but it was a relatively easy task. Then I brought out my trusty tarp, and loaded it up from the piles I made.
I then hauled my leaves into the backyard. The tarp had grommet holes and I put a long nylon rope through several of them on one side. I was able to loop the rope around both my shoulders and just haul them like they were a big, heavy cape behind me.
I dumped them in a corner of our back yard, where I will run over them over with our electric lawnmower, put them into compost bins, add coffee grounds, mix and wait for the magic to happen before using this compost next spring for mulch around all my veggie plants.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Farewell, Floyd

We said goodbye to Floyd this morning. Thanks to social media and a network of fellow farmers, we found a home for our silkie rooster. Marissa spent some time with the flock yesterday, and this morning, packed Floyd up in a box and brought him to Jay's friend, Richard's house in Madison.  Richard then drove up to his farm near Wonewoc, Wis. with Floyd.

I'm sorry to see Floyd go, but I'm gad that tomorrow morning we'll hear muffled clucking, but no crowing. We may replace Floyd with another silkie, this time making sure it's a female. Marissa is checking into our options.

 April 9, 2014

 April 27, 2014
June 12, 2014

 Aug. 17, 2014

Friday, August 22, 2014

Garden party success

It was an absolute pleasure and delight to participate in my friend Megan's first (and hopefully annual) Summer Garden Party. I've known Megan, also known as The Creative Vegetable Gardener, for several years, and have learned a lot from the classes she's taught around town.

We started at Megan's new home (only been there three months!) where 40 people brought their favorite pot luck brunch dishes. People got to know one another as guests arrived on a perfect summer morning. Megan introduced herself and the three other gardeners, myself, Janet and Brian.

Gardener, friend and blogger Megan Cain.

Megan talked about her garden, what they had done and what they plan to do, and then we drove over to Janet's home which is just a few blocks from our house.

Janet gave us a tour of her front, side and back yards. Janet isn't afraid to try something new, and is an avid perennial food gardener, and has lots of fruit trees and bushes throughout her urban lot.

One of the neatest features in Janet's back is a solar photo-voltaic array that doubles as a shelter, and in the summer, she uses it to dry garlic.

Janet's back yard is a lush canvass of annual and perennial food production. Except for the paths, every square inch is growing something edible or beautiful.

After spending an hour in Janet's corner of paradise, we moved one block over and one block down to Brian's home. Janet told us she "doesn't move dirt" to create what she wants. Brian told us "I move dirt, lots and lots of dirt." He's not afraid to dig and dig until the landscape works for him and the plants he wants to grow.

Brian also keeps bees, is about to erect a permanent greenhouse and is also fond of experimenting. While he's trying to figure out what to do with his front terrace, he's keeping it productive with cover crops such as winter rye.
Brian introducing people in front of his house.

Brian and I both collect coffee grounds from the same cafes on Madison's east side. He piles them in a cool and shady corner of his lot, where red wiggler worms turn it into fantastic compost. Like me, he's still not sure what to do about all those coffee filters.

After spending an hour or so in Brian's yard, we moved one more block over and a few more blocks down to our house. I hurried ahead to greet people as they arrived.

Waiting for guests to arrive. The terrace wild flower and butterfly garden is looking great in its second year.

I gave a tour of the front yard orchard, explaining how we sheet-mulched it and what trees and fruit bushes we are growing.
Showing the side yard and perennial herb garden.
There were only two gardeners with chicken coops on the tour, Megan also had one. As I'm seeing more and more coops here in Madison, I'm now realizing we've build more of a palace than a coop :)

Oh. Boy.

Last week Jay woke up with a start. It didn't take long for me to rise out of a deep sleep.

"What is that sound?" immediately followed by simultaneous thoughts, "Oh oh."

Still in our jammies, we went outside to the coop. The five chickens were milling about in the run, but no one made a sound. Still, it was unmistakable, we heard our first cock-a-doodle-doo. One of those five birds was a rooster.

When we spoke with Matt and Marissa about it, they had heard it too. Marissa said she heard it and asked Matt what kind of animal was "crying" outside. It didn't take long for them to realize what was making the noise.

Saturday morning we didn't hear anything, but Sunday morning it started again.

We went outside but as soon as we arrived the bird quieted down.

Monday morning Jay attempted to get video of it, sneaking his camera around a corner. It was too dark to see who was making the noise and as soon as it saw him, it quieted down. It was as if it knew it wasn't supposed to crow.

By Wednesday, however, he got some video, the proof we needed to know that it was Flora, now known as Floyd, who was making the noise.

Floyd is a Silkie - and we knew the risks when we got him. Silkies can not be gender identified when they are chicks, while the other breeds we have can be gender identified to a 95 percent accuracy.

So now we have a noisy rooster that we have to get rid of. I have a friend who has a friend with a  farm, but we haven't heard if they want the bird.

Do you have a farm? Do you want a Silkie rooster? Let me know - quick. Floyd has to go by end of this weekend!

Flora, now known as Floyd, needs a home.

Friday, July 25, 2014


Community garden

Monday, July 21, 2014

Summer garden party: breakfast and tours of four urban gardens

Summary: this garden party starts with a pot luck breakfast, followed by tours of four vegetable gardens on Madison's east side, including mine!
Saturday, August 16
10am – 2pm 

  • A relaxing and fun morning to connect with other gardeners.
  • Leave the day feeling inspired to go create magic in your own garden.
  • Fun giveaways from The Creative Vegetable Gardener online store at each garden stop!

Schedule for the day:
10-11:30am ~ Potluck in the first front yard garden on the east side of Madison (near Habitat Re-Store). Address will be provide upon registration. Coffee and other breakfast drinks provided, you bring a dish to share, followed by a tour of the first yard.

11:30am – 2pm ~ Drive 10 minutes to another east side neighborhood and tour three gardens within walking distance of each other, INCLUDING MY FRONT AND BACK YARDS.

The gardens feature chickens, a front yard food forest, hugelkultur beds, fences created with old bike wheels, fig trees and other surprises!

I would love to see you join this very cool (it might be hot!) garden tour party!

This event is limited to 25 people. RSVP on the event page here to be put on the guest list.

Chicken phrase of the day: Don't put all your eggs in one basket: Proverb cautioning against committing too many assets until they are in hand.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Bad planning. Big mistake. The conclusion.

Chicken word of the day, Don't count your chickens until they are hatched: proverb cautioning against spending assets until they are in hand.
Earlier, I described the events leading up to a meltdown in the shade of an enormous red maple tree.

We had completed two of four 16' x 5' raised beds. They were beautiful—fourteen inches high, full of sandy loamy soil, begging to be planted and covered with compost. They were also in a lot of deep shade for much of the day.

There were two more beds in the works; they had been tilled, paths dug and the first course of the reinforced sides installed. But Jay and I had the wind knocked out of us when we saw our neighbor's red maple shade our beds at three in the afternoon.

Since that maple wasn't going to go anywhere any time soon, we had to look to the east. On the corner of our property, just over the fence, a large three-trunked hackberry tree shaded our garden in the morning through noon. One of the three trunks we have rights to cut down because it leans right over our property line. But the other two trees that we can't touch cast just as much shadow onto our back yard.

We looked up the owner on the city assessor's site, found their name in the white pages, and I called. The property is a three-unit rental and the owners live in a neighboring city. One of the owners answered the phone and I introduced myself as the backyard neighbor of their property on East Washington.

I explained my desire to garden in the back yard, and that I planned to remove the one trunk. But I offered to remove the other two, at my expense, if they would let me. The woman wanted to talk with her husband first. A few days later they returned my call. They had spoken with the tenants who did not want the tree cut down "to maintain privacy."

Tomatoes and peppers are leggy, but have some flowers and fruit.
Even more depressed, weeks went by with two unfinished beds. However, despite the shade, I planted the two completed beds with tomatoes and peppers. It was a dreamy task despite the shade. The beds are tall, the soil loose, and it was fun to dig those plants in. I figure I'll get a few fruit from each plant, but nothing like the productive plants in my community garden where the plants literally get sun from sun up to sun down

The closer bed is now planted in beets, the further will be planted with lettuce.
I finally decided to do something with the other two beds, either rip them out or finish them and plant something in them. I looked up shade-tolerant annual vegetables and found a decent list - lots of lettuce and peas. We also had this huge pile of gravel in our driveway that was supposed to be for the bed paths, and I had no idea what to do with it.

So while on vacation in early July, I hired someone to help me and we finished the paths and moved all that gravel. The beds look great, and I decided to plant some 60-day beets and see what happens. In the shadiest bed, I'll plant lettuce as the summer cools off.

So thanks to folks who commented on my last post. This is an experiment and we'll see what happens.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Compost bin experiment solves a small problem

Chicken word of the day: Cock-and-bull: a fantastic story that is unbelievable.

Months ago, my friend Angie gave me kraft paper bags of leaves and sticks she collected from her yard this spring. Jay and I also drove by a house in our neighborhood that had leaves in these paper bags and we threw them in the back of my car.

I finally got around to emptying and moving my compost pile last week. I tore open the collection of bagged leaves, and chopped them up with the lawnmower. One of the big advantages of chopping up leaves is they compost much faster than had I left them whole. This pile could be done by the end of autumn. However, the small leaf pieces also fall through the large openings in the sides of the compost bin.

Compost is made up of "green" materials which supply nitrogen, and "brown" materials which provide carbon. Paper is a brown material. So I'm looking at these paper bags and think to myself, "Well, this is brown, why not put it in the compost pile?" Then I got a better idea.

I lined the compost bins with the kraft paper bags. My thought is they will keep the small leaf bits in, and may help keep the pile from drying out. On the other hand, I'm hoping the paper will allow the pile to breathe.

The leaf bits didn't fall out of the bin. Shown here is a layer of coffee grounds that I layered between thick layers of leaf matter. In a couple of weeks I'll turn the pile. I also need to add a few scoops of dirt to inoculate the pile with some good bacteria.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Finished hugelkultur bed

Chicken word of the day: chickens coming home to roost: to experience the consequences of one's behavior.

Last week I finished the hugelkulture bed. It's going to be our permanent asparagus patch. As described earlier, I used logs and branches from trees cut from our back yard fenceline, and buried them with dirt dug from garden paths and around the chicken coop. Unlike the other garden beds Jay and I built, these have a very rustic quality that I rather like.

This is a total experiment, I'm hoping the asparagus doesn't mind that the bed will settle as the wood at the bottom begins to rot.

It's also nice to finally have some of my gardening projects completed. For this project, we'll have to wait three years to harvest our first asparagus.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Hay bales and direct seeds

Poultry word of the day: chicken, chicken out, chicken-hearted, chicken-livered: to be cowardly.

When planting seeds directly in the ground, I'm always careful to lightly cover seeds with a sprinkle of hay and row cover, and then later mulch with hay between rows. It's a real pain to tear slabs of hay apart and tuck them between rows without damaging fragile seedlings.

Until now.

On reading the back of the beet seeds I planted last weekend, rows are to be 18-20 inches apart. I planted the rows, and then decided to try to mulch between them now. When I laid down the first slab of hay, to my delight (and let me reiterate this was a total accident) I discovered that a slab of hay is either 14 or 18 inches wide. (Hay bale slabs are rectangular.) I found that I had accidentally planted my beet rows with enough space between to allow me to lay down a slab of hay in the 14-inch orientation, allowing space for the plants to push up between the mulch.

I am never, ever going to plant seeds any width other than a slab of hay. I share this with you so it doesn't take you 33 years of gardening to figure out this simple mulching trick.

I planted three 16-foot rows of three types of beets, Detroit Golden, cylindra and Boro hybrid. Jay and I want enough for fresh eating and lots of canning. And after sampling borscht last year, I'm looking forward to making our own.

Hay slabs are conveniently as wide as the suggested spacing for the beets.

As I've said before, I'm a big believer in row cover, even over the hay.

Monday, July 7, 2014

First fruit

Red Lake currants
Our Red Lake currants are red, beautiful, juicy, sweet and sour and are the first fruit to yeild from our front yard orchard (second if you count rhubarb as the first). The gooseberries are big and just starting to turn purple.

We won't have enough to do anything but eat them by the small handful, but I'm looking forward to future years of currant goodness.

Last weekend my niece Catherine and I went to Old World Wisconsin, where we sampled some black currants. Now there's an acquired taste. They would take a lot of sugar to make them palatable to me.

Chicken word of the day: cocotte: prostitute.
Gooseberries starting to ripen with just a tinge of purple.

Everbearing rhubarb.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

I'm a believer in row cover

My friend and educator Megan Cain will tell you at every chance she can about the wonders of "remay" or row cover. I've been using it for years too, but saw visible proof this spring.

When I put row cover over my beets and radish seeds this spring I ran short on one bed. "Oh well," I thought to myself, "I'll see the difference between using it and not using it."

Row cover helps maintain moisture, protect seeds, soil and fragile seedlings from the rain, protects seeds from foraging birds and keeps insects off. You really can't go wrong. Only one problem is you have to remove it to weed underneath!

Row cover on right, covering beet and radish seeds

 Row cover removed, look at the size difference and the higher germination on the left!

Friday, June 27, 2014

First produce of the season

My friend Jason R. recently posted a wonderful photo of a bunch of spring produce he harvested from his garden. He captioned it something like "I'm my own green grocer."

With the chicken coop project in full swing this spring, I planted a radish, beet and parsnip seeds and then kinda forgot about them. So after seeing Jason's post, I went to check and found lovely radishes in the garden. THIS is why I do what I do.

Poultry word of the day
Chicken feed: insignificant amount of money.